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Gerry ChidiacThe world has been shocked by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in neighbouring Ukraine and we all watch in horror as millions of people are made to suffer. What lessons does this situation reveal about our humanity?

We’re capable of responding to people in need with empathy. The media coverage of the Ukraine crisis has been constant, and the events are being followed all over the world. People want to help those in need and want to see peace restored.

Not since the Vietnam War has the media been more effective in mobilizing populations to demand an end to aggression. Perhaps if there were more frequent coverage of other conflicts, we would see less unnecessary suffering.

If we saw the same type of footage of families fleeing for safety in Iraq in 2003 – or today in Yemen, Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and many other countries – we would pressure our governments to develop more compassionate foreign policy. If we saw families freezing through harsh winters in refugee camps, we wouldn’t have more than 82 million forcibly displaced persons in the world in 2022.

Thirty years ago, the world was much more optimistic. The Cold War ended and the Soviet-era military agreement, known as the Warsaw Pact, was dissolved. While the American-backed North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) continued to exist, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was promised that it wouldn’t expand eastward.

One can understand the anxiety among the former Warsaw Pact countries, with a powerful Russia on their doorstep, but we need to ask if NATO membership was their best option.

Perhaps the problem has been in our leadership.

In his book Why We Elect Narcissists and Sociopaths – and How We Can Stop, author Bill Eddy analyzes the behaviours of several high-conflict politicians and notes their commonalities. They tend to create fantasy crises, choose fantasy villains, paint themselves as the fantasy hero, manipulate the media and ultimately do great damage.

The most obvious example is Adolf Hitler, who blamed the Jews and other minorities for all of Germany’s problems. He used the media, primarily radio, to convince people that his lies were true. In the end, Hitler and his henchmen were responsible for more than 55 million deaths.

Eddy uses Putin as a current example of a high-conflict leader. Putin has used numerous fantasy crises, targeting foreign politicians and governments, gays and others. He controls the media and has manipulated the Russian political system to remain in power. Taken from this perspective, his aggressions in Ukraine aren’t surprising.

To be fair, Eddy notes several other leaders from all sides of the political spectrum who demonstrate high-conflict behaviours. Some of them, like Putin, are still in office.

While we may never eliminate high-conflict leaders from taking power, much can be done to limit their impact. Democratic structures with checks and balances are essential.

Beyond this, it’s important for ordinary citizens to focus on the truth of our shared humanity. Manipulative fantasy crises and stories of fantasy villains fail to gain traction when they’re met with healthy public skepticism.

Peaceful solutions to tensions between Russia and the United States aren’t without precedence. While much of Europe remained heavily militarized throughout the Cold War, all Allied occupying armies, including the Soviets, withdrew from Austria in 1955 in exchange for an Austrian commitment to remain neutral. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended because the Soviets agreed not to place ballistic missiles in Cuba, and the Americans agreed to withdraw theirs from Turkey.

Ukrainians have suffered greatly and unjustly for centuries from war and genocide. They deserve to live in peace, and we must find a way to make that happen.

Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He is the recipient of an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust. For interview requests, click here.

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