Thoughts from Kyiv — evening Feb 28, 2022

Air raid warning means time to think and write in the basement. Family is safe. Planes flying overhead but no explosions nearby.

Two valuational/behavioral contrasts that strike me as worthy of analysis in this war:

hierarchy vs. heterarchy (spontaneous teams)

passivity vs. agency (collective and personal)

When Russian soldiers entered Ukraine (and as they continue to invade) they were following orders. The hierarchy told them to move in, so they moved. That’s the way things work in an army.

But if field commanders are to succeed in their missions, they must also believe in what they are doing. The Russians were told they would be welcomed by Ukrainians as “liberators”. Reality has been very different.

Cognitive dissonance has resulted in the Russians’ total passivity. Instead of continuing to follow orders to attack, the are simply freezing — not necessarily laying down their weapons, but certainly slowing their advance.

When faced with unarmed civilian resistance, they pull back as happened yesterday in Koryukiv Chernihiv oblast and in Berdyansk in the south today. In the latter case, Russian forces simply withdrew their APC’s from the center of town after its citizens surrounded them singing the Ukrainian anthem.

The Russians’ equipment is old. It breaks down regularly. Their vehicles run out of fuel. When this happens, the crews often abandon both their arms and vehicles. Territorial brigades and police later pick them up with the help of civilians. The invaders are often in a sorry state: hungry, lost, scared.

One wonders how this could possibly be one of the most powerful armies on earth. Granted, these are not (yet) Russia’s elite units, but still…

Now the contrast with Ukrainians. Although I have very little information on the internal workings of Ukrainian army operations, the extent to which civilians have spontaneously mobilized is breathtaking. No orders necessary, just a common cause. Exactly like the Maidan protests but on a nationwide scale. The closest parallel seems to be a beehive.

In this context, the worst psychological stress is caused by helplessness. One wants to be involved; to be useful; to sign up for territorial defense; to volunteer; to provide care and comfort. When the air raid warnings sound and people are forced to shelter, that is when they feel the worst.

Ironically, safety = helplessness = stress.

Collective action, though dangerous = agency = freedom

That is the logic that brings ordinary civilians into the streets to stop tanks with their bare hands, to throw Molotov cocktails from their own vehicles into those of the invader, to organize teams of local men to hunt down Russian recon groups with their hunting rifles and pitchforks. That is the reality that I’ve witnessed and it makes this nation invincible.

Sadly, the opposite reality of Russia — socialized in hierarchy and lacking the sense of freedom that is the foundation of personal and collective agency — is what we see at anti-war protests in Moscow. The video of multiple protesters fleeing from a single riot police officer has gone viral in Ukraine’s social networks tonight. I’ll post it in the first comment.

If our only hope to end this war is for the Russians themselves to come to their senses and to overthrow Putin, I fear we’re in for a long wait. And a long resistance here.

God help us!

Author: Mychailo Wynnyckyj, Ukrainian Social Scientist, Public Intellectual, Academic Development Officer, Professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

Illustration by Christina Katrakis. The Catch. Giclee Print of Mixed Medium on Canvas, 2010

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