Comment: Putin’s latest reason for war? Ukrainians are satanists

There’s psychology behind Russian citizens’ acceptance of the shifting justifications for Putin’s war.

By Andreas Kluth / Bloomberg Opinion

If you are Russian and inhabit the propaganda universe created by your president, Vladimir Putin, it must be hard keeping up with the reasons why your country had to attack and brutalize Ukraine.

At one point, Russia was forced to invade because otherwise NATO would have taken Ukraine. Then you had to attack because Ukraine isn’t a country at all, but part of Russia, which Ukrainians had forgotten. Actually, it was because the Ukrainians, including their Jewish president, are Nazis. No? Well, they’re definitely terrorists. Come to think of it, Ukrainians are actually Satanists. So, just to be clear, Russia is fighting to “stop the supreme ruler of Hell, whatever name he uses: Satan, Lucifer or Iblis.”

Most people outside of Russia — and plenty inside, too — don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this parade of absurdities. But eventually we feel like sobbing, as we realize how the Kremlin is using these preposterous tropes and narratives. As the historian Timothy Snyder argues, Putin has all along been waging not only an old-fashioned colonial war but also an intended genocide.

In fairness, 2022 is hardly the first time countries have shifted their war rationales. Just recall America’s changing catalogue of reasons for attacking Iraq in 2003 once the original casus belli — Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction — turned out not to be a thing. But Putin is in a league of his own in asking his compatriots to suspend disbelief on his behalf.

Consider, for example, even the one narrative that, at least among Russians, may at one point have had a semblance of plausibility: the claim that Putin had to attack Ukraine to keep NATO from expanding. But in effect, NATO had already ruled out Ukrainian accession long before the war. And even after Putin invaded, Ukraine itself promised not to seek membership; an offer that Putin rejected.

As a discerning Russian, you also notice that Finland and Sweden, two proudly neutral non-NATO countries, are now joining the alliance, in direct response to Putin’s bellicosity. So Putin is actually causing NATO to expand. Adding to your bafflement, he suddenly appears insouciant about this Western encroachment, even moving troops away from the Finnish border and toward Ukraine. None of this makes sense. And your job as a Russian is not to notice.

On it goes, and down it goes, into the netherworlds conjured by the Kremlin’s propaganda ideators. Iblis, anyone? It appears that the more illogical, outlandish and ridiculous the storyline, the more enthusiastically it is embraced by Putin’s regime; and by a large proportion of Russians. How is that possible?

The answer probably lies in the depths of the human mind as Leon Festinger described it. He was an American psychologist who became interested in a cult, which he and his co-authors joined and observed, and later analyzed in a ground-breaking book, “When Prophecy Fails.”

Based on the communications between a suburban housewife, “Mrs. Keech,” and extraterrestrials, the cult’s followers were convinced that the world would end in a Biblical-sized flood on Dec. 21, 1954. They also believed that an enlightened few would be saved by a flying saucer. So they sold their belongings and quit their jobs, and waited for the prophecy to come true; and for their apocalyptic ride in the UFO.

Festinger and his colleagues wanted to know what would happen after Dec. 21, 1954; that is, after what social scientists politely call the “disconfirmation” of the cult’s worldview. In light of the new evidence, would the group’s members change their views?

Of course not. Instead, they became even more fanatical, taking to the airwaves and op-ed pages to proselytize their convictions. Festinger understood that this reaction was a response to psychological distress. Confronted by evidence that their worldview was bunk, the cultists doubled down and sought solace in social affirmation from other people.

Festinger later developed these observations into his theory of cognitive dissonance. That’s the uncomfortable tension we feel whenever we realize that our behavior or attitude clashes with the way things actually are. When that happens, we yearn to restore consonance. But in doing so, we face a choice.

We can adapt our behavior to fit the facts. For example, we could support measures to emit less carbon dioxide, or stipulate that our favorite candidate in an election actually lost fair and square. But we often find it easier to cling to our behavior or beliefs and change the narrative instead. We don’t have to emit less carbon, because human-made climate change is a hoax. My candidate deserves to be president, because the election must have been stolen.

As Festinger understood, these psychological evasions sometimes become especially compelling. That’s the case when the belief that was falsified forms part of our identity; when it has already made us do things that are hard to undo; and when we can find reassurance and solace among others who share our worldview.

Festinger’s insights apply to all of us. That should make us humble in contemplating the ironies and mysteries of our own minds. But sometimes, the stakes of such individual self-interrogations become large enough to shape collective history, and to seal the fates of many innocent people.

When groups of people believe, despite contravening evidence, that extraterrestrials will rescue them in a saucer from an apocalyptical flood, they usually don’t injure or kill innocent bystanders. But when millions of Russians indulge the diabolical fictions of a regime that is committing mass atrocities and threatening nuclear escalation, they become complicit in the crimes.

So if you’re Russian and writhing in cognitive dissonance, find the courage to admit the obvious: Putin’s war of aggression has no justification at all. It is pure evil, and must stop.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics.

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