The Hamilton Spectator
Bullying strategies could help with Putin
It has been one year since Vladimir Putin ripped a page out of the classic schoolyard bully handbook and employed it in the invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian president saw something he wanted and used force to try and take it from a weaker peer — like an international shakedown for lunch money.
Tragically, that bullying has cost the lives of tens of thousands of people and injured and displaced countless more. And it’s showing no signs of slowing.
While the consequences of Putin’s actions go far beyond the scope of the schoolyard, his behaviour was, and remains, a clear analogue of what bullying researchers like myself study in schools across the world.
The bad news is that we know bullying is hard to stop. Ignoring the problem rarely works.
Bullying is goal-driven. Most bullies won’t stop until they get what they want.
Bullying also thrives on power imbalances, meaning victims often have less power. Thus, relying on them to win an uphill battle is a bad idea. Unfortunately, unlike what Hollywood movies may have you believe, the underdog rarely comes out on top without help from others.
Instead, we can employ what works in the schoolyard to help impact the outcome: empower victims, raise the costs for bullies and encourage bystanders to get involved.
But how does this translate from the schoolyard to the global political arena?
To begin with, NATO has done an excellent job of getting off the sidelines and helping empower Ukraine militarily and financially. This needs to continue and it needs to happen at an even more rapid pace.
Next, sanctions are starting to effect key Russian economic indicators. They need to be maintained and should be extended to anyone who is enabling the bullying.
Iran, North Korea, Syria and other Russian allies are acting just like kids bullying researchers call “reinforcers.” They don’t initiate the bullying, but they cheer on and support the behaviour. Further discouraging their support would help to hinder Putin’s efforts, as would greater disapproval from bystanders such as China and India.
By strengthening consequences and weakening potential gains of conflict, the possibility of successful intervention increases. This makes the bully realize the rewards will not be worth the costs.
Lastly, fighting back is the single best way to stop schoolyard bullying. However, it’s also the best way to escalate the situation if the bully doesn’t want to back down.
Putin’s terror campaign against civilian infrastructure and throwing waves of conscripts to their deaths shows that he is willing to doubledown rather than back down, making him a challenging bully to defeat.
So, what else can be done to bring these actions to an end? Give the bully what they want.
I do not mean major Ukrainian territorial or political concessions.
We know from school bullying that costs alone are rarely enough to stop a determined bully. Offering some kind of benefit or incentive can make quitting a winning choice. A way to exit the fight and still save face, or a chance to benefit from a new peace, are options that work in the schoolyard and have potential to work on the global scale where the stakes are, of course, considerably higher.
Expecting the bully to back down when quitting offers few benefits but large costs to themselves is not likely to work in the schoolyard or in global politics.
Ukraine-approved rewards should be explored that would allow both sides of the cost-benefit equation to be addressed.
As Putin remains in power and seems determined to press forward heedless of any but the highest costs, it behooves us to think of acceptable incentives for an offramp before those costs become too high for all involved. Putin should not be rewarded for his bullying, but we can try using the levers of benefits, along with costs, to incentivize his ultimately choosing a path toward peace.