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Siena College professor and Ukraine native says alleged war crimes is "standard operating procedure" for Putin's Russia

 Dmitry Burshteyn, associate professor of psychology at Siena College, holds an "We Stand with Ukraine" flag.
Siena College
Dmitry Burshteyn, associate professor of psychology at Siena College.

Alleged atrocities carried out by Russian forces in Ukraine have led to investigations of possible war crimes and global outrage. Moscow has claimed the accounts are false or staged. Among those following the developments is Dmitry Burshteyn, associate professor of psychology at Siena College in Loudonville, New York, who was born and raised in what is now Ukraine, leaving when he was 19.

Burshteyn: We had friends who were able to leave Ukraine. They were one of the refugees from this ongoing conflict. So they were able to, you know, escape to Poland and Romania. But at this point, the only people that I have are relatives that I don't know really well, but they're still in the city of Odessa. And, you know, they're still there, but they're older and, you know, for them, the decision to leave is not an issue they're considering. So they're there for the duration.

Levulis: You mentioned, your relatives, you're not too close with there, but your friends who were able to get out. Have you spoken with them, and what was their experience?

Burshteyn: I didn't speak to them, it's a sort of a little bit of a further connection, these are more of friends or friends, they were able to safely you know, after I think day two or day three, they were able to find the kind of safe passage and then go to Poland. And, you know, some of them went to Romania, and my friends are constantly in touch with them. They seem to be doing well, although at this point, they're beginning to realize after this first what I call sort of euphoria of safety, after escaping the conflict, they're beginning to kind of face all the remaining issues that they'll be facing now such as what's next of their life. And I think they're still in limbo in that sense. But for now, they're safe, and, you know, waiting for this, you know, conflict to hopefully and then they get a clearer picture of, you know, whether or not they'll be able to return and if they are able to return, how quickly, but they do want to return, they don't want to go back.

Levulis: And when did you leave Ukraine?

Burshteyn: I left Ukraine in the end of 1989. This was still Soviet Union at the time, this was prior to the chain of events that led to sort of a collapse of the Soviet Union. And, you know, at that time I left with my family and, you know, we were able to leave and go to the United States.

Levulis: So as an Ukrainian American, what's been running through your head for the past several weeks?

Burshteyn: I've been trying to understand, you know, as much as I can to get as much of a, you know, not always firsthand information, but, you know, real time information from both Ukrainian sources, you know, and actually, even from Russian sources, just to see what's in people's minds, and try to really understand, you know, the direction of that conflict. And it's been very, very much very emotional. Unfortunately, sort of my worst fears are coming to reality. Now was the recent, you know, brutality that the world is observing now in places like Bucha and Irpen, but to me, this was sort of unfortunately a foregone conclusion in terms of what was happening and the direction this was taking and like the previous pattern of Russian administration dealing with conflicts of that nature. So my fear is that this will be nothing in comparison to what will be discovered in the city of Mariupol and some other places once this conflict comes to a different stage.

Levulis: Now you are a psychology professor at Siena College in Loudonville, New York. So from a psychology standpoint, how do you think these Russian actions against civilians, which many leaders, including President Biden have called war crimes, impact the psyche of the Ukrainian people there?

Burshteyn: Ukrainian people are resilient. What happens when you see brutalities like that you know are of course shocking and of course, demoralizing people, but it gives them the reason and understanding why they need to fight and why they need to continue doing what they're doing to liberate the country from, in fact, what I think is, you know, reasonably to describe, you know, very brutal fascist regime of Vladimir Putin, because if anybody in the world has some questions and illusions about this now, I don't think there are any questions left. It's fairly clear for you know, sort of a Western world what that means. For us however, this is not surprising. I mean, we've seen it. We've known them. As you probably know, this regime has done some absolutely, you know, incredible illegal criminal things, you know, in terms of even sort of poisoning political opponents in the view of the world, powderizing some other cities, you know, prior to invading Ukraine. So this is a very standard operating procedure of this sort of Nazi-like corporation that's now in charge of Russia. And, you know, what we're seeing is, to me, it's very logical and very reasonable, unfortunately, reasonable in the sense of reasonable expectation from people who are in charge of that country to commit crimes that they're committing now. From a psychological standpoint, generally speaking, what I've seen this Russian soldiers do, who are as a matter of fact, extremely poorly prepared, very, extremely unmotivated, it's the same thing we talked to students about when there are people that are given power over less powerful people and people feel powerless in their views, slight transgressions, you know, escalate very quickly to some psychological harm. And then one step further, it becomes physical harm. And then we end up with what we ended up, you know, mass murderers, and like graves of 10-year-old girls. So that's, that's, unfortunately, the direction of this. And, you know, the field of psychology has studied this for a while. So that's what we're facing here.

Levulis: If Russia wants to make Ukraine part of Russia, and presumably had some sort of peace, if it were to successfully take over part of Ukraine and control it, why would it commit such acts against the people who could be part of its future populace?

Burshteyn: In the Russian worldview, or at least in in the Russian leadership worldview, who has been kind of planning this what they call operation, but really war, and for a long period of time, I think they've calculated it. And I don't know if this was their original intention to do what they're doing. But you know, for the same reason that I described, things escalate on the ground. Vladimir Putin is a KGB operative, he is not a military commander. And by no means does he care about you know, human life or you know, some other specific sort of a psychological issues that occur on the ground, those brutalities are part of war, in his view and they’ll all be written off after the war. As a matter of fact, it is the way that Russia responded to this crimes that were committed was very similar to how they addressed some other things. Denial, like saying ‘no, these were like, they were trucked, these victims by Ukrainian government, they were not there on that date.’ And then when that kind of blew apart because of the satellite images, ‘well, maybe they were the actors or something along this line. So maybe then they were killed by Ukrainians.’

So there is no sense of care or like responsibility for committing this act. But coming back to his plan, although I'm not even sure what his plan is right now, what I hear is the treatment may not necessarily be the same in other places in Russia that are not major metropolitan areas that are more overt areas where he feels they can get more support from the population. So maybe in some places, it's different. But I think the war has a tendency of escalating very quickly. And I don't think it's something that anybody can control on the Russian side, given how poorly trained that military is. It has lack of leadership. And, you know, its people who are actually very poor soldiers, you know, with the organization that's certainly not the second best time in the world at he has kind of promised to be. That's the tragedy of war. And that's the reason I'm also doing this interview, I want people to realize how important it is to stop it as quickly as possible. And unfortunately, with a person like Vladimir Putin, in my view, it's only decisive actions, even more decisive that we're taking now, that will actually create an opportunity for this to end. Unfortunately, being afraid of escalating it, it's not going to stop him. I would even argue that if he felt at some point that it would be strategically beneficial for him to detonate a couple of nuclear weapons in the cities of Ukraine, the cities would have already been on fire. It's not that he hasn't done this because he can’t, he doesn't feel that that's advantageous to him at this point in time. But we need to act decisively with people like this because the longer this conflict takes, the more atrocities we'll see.

Levulis: And what are your thoughts about the US response to the Russian invasion so far?

Burshteyn: From Ukrainian standpoint, I’m extremely grateful for everything that the United States has done. Extremely grateful, you know, to American people, generally speaking are extremely gracious and that they understand because of I think the nature of this society that when they see evil, they react in a very particular way. At the same time in terms of government response, I think the president of Ukraine has outlined what he felt would be extremely helpful. And I think a lot of, you know, he sees that could be decided on a battlefield with Ukrainian forces, like even what they need to be able to drive Russian forces out of Ukraine. And by doing that, you know, minimize some potential issues that will come from longer occupation. And that's, you know, what we've seen in Bucha and Irpen. So a little bit of frustration, maybe was the delays in transferring some weapons that are really helpful to Ukraine, and no one else like those tanks and those MIG jets and things of that nature, because of the fear of what it would, again, trying to calculate a crowd would affect Vladimir Putin, I would say, again, you know, Vladimir Putin doesn't need an issue to get more extreme in his decisions, he can make one up, he can lie about it. Our actions are not necessarily related to what he is going to do. I think that we just need to do what we need to do to help Ukraine, you know, try to kind of resolve this conflict in the best way for Ukraine. And I believe that, you know, the Ukrainian president is a very good person and very grateful for Ukraine. And I think what he outlined accurately reflects what a lot of people believe needs to end this conflict sooner.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org