The world watches in horror as V. Putin persists on his reckless, purposeless, and ultimately self-destructive terrorist invasion of Ukraine.
Survivors of toxic entanglements with narcissistic or antisocial partners recognize the choreography, even without depth knowledge of the political backstory.
Ukraine broke up with Russia ages ago, but Putin, in denial, fails to recognize her freedom and right to exist as an independently functioning democracy. Despite the divorce, Putin has continued to threaten, provoke, surveil, stalk, and gaslight Ukraine.
After some recovery time, gaining its post-cold war identity and autonomy, feeling strong and productive and worthy, Ukraine begins to court a new relationship, this time with NATO.
This is the final straw for ego-wounded Putin; like a rejected anti-social family member, he cannot tolerate watching Ukraine move along, have support, enjoy a good life, build alliances. In fact, he cannot tolerate not being the center of Ukraine’s attention, and sees Ukraine’s interest in the broader world as an insult to him.
His threats escalate; Ukraine decides he’s just bluster, which insults him more. Finally, he makes his move to prove his point, expecting Ukraine to realize how much he’s been missed, how good Ukraine had it before the break-up, how much Ukraine really is the better partner choice. And, fragile as he is, he sends in the flying monkeys to do his dirty work, risking the lives of other family's children, youngsters who have no grudge against Ukraine and would prefer to live with her, rather than destroy her. Still, he assumes they will behave as proper puppets, and that Ukraine really does want him back, or that his old tricks will incite her into collapsing in fear.
Like most anti-social and narcissistic people eventually do, he mis-caluculates.
Ukraine has come to know herself. She has tasted freedom and democracy and now sees them as essential to her. She can support herself. She no longer cowers in the corner. She no longer keeps Putin’s secrets nor hides her suffering from her friends. She no longer sees him as credible. She names the oppressor as what he is. Having lived with him and studied him and watched him after the break-up, she knows his capacity to inflict damage on her and her children and anyone she has ever loved, and in this moment, she decides that the risk that he will prevail in atrocities if unopposed is greater than the risk that she will not stand him down. She brings to the effort clarity and cunning and as many friends and resources as she can muster because she knows that his horrible ego and his vengeful impulses are merciless.
As we watch what is unfolding, we see many of the familiar dynamics that play out on a small scale every day across the world in families afflicted by narcissistic abuse. We can see President Zelenskyy’s daily courage, leadership, and love. We feel how these contrast with Putin’s vacuous, vampiristic, ego-centric, abusive punishments designed to “make her mine again.” We observe his willingness to destroy her rather than set her free.
Ukraine, under the leadership of President Zelenskyy, is an inspiration to the world, and especially to people suffering in or recovering from toxic relationships. Ukraine, nurtured by the steady support of President Zelenskyy, has done everything she can against incredible odds to hold her ground, literally and figuratively, during this sustained assault. Like most psychopaths, Putin has underestimated how well survivors of his dictatorship have come to know him and to predict and thereby thwart his next moves. He has overestimated the loyalty of his own military. He has assumed that the world will look the other way, as it often has.
And he is, at last, wrong.
The toll of being entangled with antisocial and narcissistic people — both on the world stage and on our private ones —- is often impossible to tally. The destruction and casualties sustained by Ukraine are already beyond comprehension. Even if diplomats can offer Putin a face-saving pathway to withdrawal, the road to recovery will be long and hard. And still: Ukraine can see that capitulation, staying, appeasing the abuser, pretending everything is manageable, somehow is a path no longer acceptable for her.
May all survivors across the world find ways to support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. May all survivors continue to find clarity and inspiration in her courageous defense of autonomy, freedom, and self-determination.