Category Archives: Ukraine

decentralization and civic capacity in Ukraine

Ukrainian friends have been telling me for a decade about the value of decentralization in their country. Some have even argued that it helped prepare Ukraine for an effective and motivated military defense.

A new paper by Arends, Brik, Herrmann and Roesel (2023) offers relevant quantitative evidence. The authors explain that, in “2014, the Parliament of Ukraine amended the budget code to entitle villages and cities which amalgamated voluntarily into larger local governments, so-called ‘territorial hromadas’ …. Hromadas therewith become independent from local branches of the national administration. The newly created local governments also qualified for a 60 percent share of the personal income tax collected within their jurisdiction.”

In 2015, the hromadas gained power over schools, libraries, hospitals and health centers, local roads, and fire and emergency services. In 2018, they were also given “ownership of formerly state-owned land within their jurisdiction.”

The process was popular and widespread. By 2020, “more than 10,000 Ukrainian villages, settlements and cities were amalgamated into 1470 new hromadas now enjoying considerable autonomy over local affairs.”

Arends et al show that areas with and without hromadas started with similar levels of trust in local and national government, but the ones that created hromadas saw substantial increases in trust for local (but not national) government. This empirical evidence is strongly suggestive that the reform caused trust to rise.

Here are a few reflections based on theory and studies from other countries.

First, I don’t read the paper as a general argument for decentralization, per se. Independent Ukraine had inherited a highly centralized system from the Soviet Union, and it was wise to moderate that by strengthening the local layer. The study does not imply that more power should necessarily be devolved to localities if they are already strong.

More important, I suspect, was the way the reform was designed. Contiguous communities were permitted to assemble themselves voluntarily into hromadas. This was a bottom-up process, requiring substantial agreement at the local level. One advantage was avoiding corruption: politicians and bureaucrats could not extract benefits by deciding which new local units to create or by conferring autonomy on favored local leaders. Another advantage was civic experience. Quite a few local stakeholders had to come together to negotiate and present each plan for a new hromada. They would later be able to use their network-ties, deliberative experience, and confidence for other purposes.

Second, trust in government is not intrinsically desirable. People should distrust bad governments. Some have argued that “trust” is not quite the right word for an attitude toward the state, which should rather inspire “confidence” if it functions well.

But we have survey data on trust, and the authors make good use of it to support a valuable empirical case. Still, the really interesting question is whether governance improved as a result of the reform. For example, did corruption fall? Trustful opinions may indicate improvement, because citizens are well placed to assess government, but I think the accuracy of their opinions deserves further attention.

At the same time, trust in government is often found to be a component of the construct labeled “social capital.” And social capital is a resource that communities can use to address problems–including corruption. But although trust in government is empirically a component of social capital (meaning that it correlates with the other components), it doesn’t suffice. It would be interesting to know whether Ukrainians in hromadas also developed other aspects of social capital, such as habits of participating in discussions and meetings and helping each other voluntarily.

Reference: Helge Arends, Tymofii Brik, Benedikt Herrmann, Felix Roesel,
Decentralization and trust in government: Quasi-experimental evidence from Ukraine,
Journal of Comparative Economics, 2023. See also: two approaches to social capital: Bourdieu vs. the American literature; social movements depend on social capital (but you can make your own); civilian resistance in Ukraine, revisited.

a Ukraine War timeline

I have no expertise or personal experience in military affairs and a shallow knowledge of Eastern Europe, but I have been following the Ukraine war avidly on a daily basis. This summary might have some value for those who are following matters less closely than I–as long as you remember the caveats about my amateurishness.

I illustrate this timeline with maps from the Neue Zuericher Zeitung (the Swiss newspaper), because they work well graphically. The NZZ helpfully explains how and why their maps differ from some other credible ones.

Russia’s armed conflict with Ukraine begins in 2014. By February 24, 2022, Russia and its proxies occupy substantial (but disconnected) portions of Ukraine. The current war begins with strikes against military targets, denoted with the icons of explosions below.

Feb 24, 2022, per Neue Zuericher Zeitung

Putin probably thinks that he is sending about 200,000 well-equipped soldiers into Ukraine under officers who have gained combat experience in Syria and elsewhere. He probably assumes that the Ukrainian government is almost a joke: unpopular, corrupt, propped up by the CIA, and led by a comedian. He orders an ambitious attack on multiple fronts and expects the conflict to conclude in days.

That multi-front offensive has culminated by mid-March, with massive Russian casualties and atrocities against civilians, especially on the route south from Belarus. It is becoming clear that the Russian force was hollow, due to corruption and falsified reporting up the line, whereas the Ukrainians are motivated and prepared. Russian occupied territory teaches its maximum extent around March 15.

March 12-15, 2022

By April, the Russian columns in the north and northeast have withdrawn in defeat, and the focus is a bloody battle to control a devastated port city of Mariupol in the southeast. The Russian offensive is now very slow, but Russia controls a continuous band of Ukraine that includes much of Ukraine’s industrial east and its seacoast and ports.

April 11-13, 2022

Mariupol falls by early May. Ukraine’s second city, Kharkhiv in the northeast, is close to the front and constantly bombarded. The next phase is a slow Russian advance in the the eastern zone, enabled by massive artillery support. Major fighting centers on the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, which have little military value, according to independent military experts. Still, Russia wants to claim that it retains offensive goals. (On April 14, Ukraine sinks the Russian battleship Moskva, an episode in the ongoing naval campaign.)

May 16-18, 2022

The map in late August looks similar, because Russian forward movement has essentially stalled. At this point, Ukraine is sending all kinds of signals that it will counterattack along the southern tier, targeting the city of Kherson on the right (western) bank of the Dnipro River. By this time, it is possible that Russia is already planning an organized retreat from Kherson, which is difficult to defend because of the wide river.

August 29-31, 2022

The southern counteroffensive was a feint. Ukraine manages a rapid surprise advance in the north and then down into the north-center, while Russia withdraws from Kherson anyway (with light losses, in one of Russia’s under-recognized successes). Ukraine regains Kherson, Izium, Lyman, and other cities and territory.

As the Ukrainian counteroffensive culminates, attention turns to the small city of Bakhmut, which both sides seem eager to award symbolic significance. For the Ukrainians, the goal may be to entice Russians into a Pyrrhic campaign for a target of little strategic importance. In any case, the map for Jan. 10, 2023 (below) looks very similar to that for late August (above). But these maps do not depict the constant strikes against Ukrainian civilian targets as far west as Lviv–or the Ukrainian attack on the Kerch Bridge, a vital Russian supply route, on Oct. 8.

Jan. 10, 2023

During this period, it is likely that Russia is focused on mobilizing, training, and equipping a new cohort of 300,000 reservists and redirecting its heavy industry for prolonged war. Putin may have no short-term offensive hopes between August and January, and you’d have to squint to see the differences between these maps.

Feb. 10-12, 2023

But acknowledging that the Russian offensive has stalled would embarrass Putin politically and could embolden Ukraine’s allies. Therefore, the Kremlin encourages irregular proxies to continue fighting, especially for Bakhmut. These proxies include the “People’s Militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” “the People’s Militia of the Luhansk People’s Republic,” Chechen forces under Ramzan Kadyrov, and especially the “Wagner Private Military Company” under billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, which recruits/pressgangs Russian prisoners as troops. Political ambitious motivate these groups to continue fighting (and quarreling amongst themselves), even when the costs are extraordinarily high. They serve the Kremlin’s propaganda needs and cause Ukrainians to die, while Russia strives to restore its regular Ministry of Defense forces. By today, Prigozhin has probably outlasted his welcome and is being marginalized. I would not be surprised to see him in jail soon.

The UK Ministry of Defense and Institute for the Study of War both believe that an attempted Russian advance–using its reconstituted, regular forces–began in mid- to late-January, 2023. This offensive was not announced, probably because of anxiety about whether it would succeed. The fog of war is thick, and conditions may change rapidly, but there is no sign of Russian success so far.

One possible outcome is no advance at all, which would be hard for Putin to conceal from domestic audiences. At that point, I think his only option would be to dig in and try to retain currently occupied Ukrainian territory long enough for Western support to wane–a bit like Germany’s decision to hold fortified lines across Belgium and France from 1916-18.

A rainy, wet season is expected that will frustrate advances by either side. Ukraine expects deliveries of Western tanks and other equipment by late spring. Thus the most likely next phase is an attempted Ukrainian counter-offensive focused wherever the Ukrainian General Staff chooses.

If that counteroffensive succeeds, I think Putin’s options will become quite unpleasant for him. Then Russian would be in a similar position to imperial Russia in 1917.

If the Ukrainian advance should falter, then the war may enter a new stalemate phase, during which the main drama will be diplomatic. Would the US and European countries continue to support Ukraine or else start pressing for an armistice, which would give Putin time to rebuild for another invasion later? And where would players like China’s President Xi stand?

toward a new equilibrium in Russia?

Anna Colin Lebedev (University of Paris-Nanterre) recently wrote a 30-tweet thread about current Russian opinion that I found illuminating.

She discounts the value of surveys because they make two assumptions that do not apply in Russia (if anywhere): there is a correlation between discontent as measured by polls and explicit acts of resistance, and leaders care about discontent because they want to be reelected. Both are premises of the “public sphere” model elaborated by Habermas, which is only partly applicable in the USA, and hardly at all in Russia. There, Lebedev writes, the risks of explicit protest are very high, but the state may respond favorably to “legal complaints (for example, within the military) … agreements, workarounds, [and] personal contacts.” (I am translating from Lebedev’s French and responsible for any errors).

To use a phrase from James C. Scott that Lebedev doesn’t cite, Russians often opt for the “weapons of the weak“: everyday resistance, foot-dragging, noncompliance, and grudging compliance. These options are available not only to the truly weak but to the people whom Lebedev calls the “intermediate elites who run municipalities, administrations, military institutions, and even businesses.” These elites were already skilled at quiet noncompliance, and many recent examples have been reported: e.g., the Mayor of Moscow declaring prematurely that the objectives of mobilization have been fully met, or teachers failing to administer the awful new civics curriculum that I discussed here while their superiors turn a blind eye.

Lebedev writes: “There are two ways a tree can fall: it can be cut down, or it can be rotted from the inside while it still looks solid. An insect that devours the tree from within is not visible and does not make a difference. But many insects together destroy the tree.”

Destruction isn’t inevitable, and Russia may simply slip down to a new stable equilibrium. As I understand it, for the past two decades, Putin has had: 1) carrots, 2) sticks, and 3) a reputation for competence. His carrots are mostly economic: the Kremlin controls vast revenues that it can distribute to businesses and business leaders, regional governments, security services, and institutions like the church. The sticks can be brutal: consider numerous murders, prosecutions, and the cities of Grozny, Aleppo, and Mariupol. A reputation for competence is essential for making people heed carrots and sticks; otherwise, they will try to get away with doing whatever they want. Putin has appeared competent even to many of his critics. For instance, in the Red Sparrow series by Jason Matthews, he is a diabolical genius.

Entering 2023, Putin has fewer carrots because state revenues are down and the costs of the war are absorbing his funds. If Russia goes ahead with the massive expansion and modernization of the military that Putin’s team have promised, there will be little money left for other constituencies. The Kremlin is still a deadly force when people openly attract its notice. More than twenty critics suddenly died in mysterious circumstances during 2022 alone, not to mention the mass murder of Ukrainian civilians. However, the security services have their hands full and probably cannot address widespread noncompliance. Finally, Putin’s reputation for competence is shattered among Russia’s “intermediary elites,” if not yet among ordinary Russians. To me, it is especially noteworthy that the Russian state probably miscalculated the size and preparation of the army, because this error suggests that it cannot even see itself clearly. The reason was probably corruption rather than deliberate resistance, but these two behaviors merge in practice.

One can easily imagine a downward spiral, in which diminishing “state capacity” on the Kremlin’s side encourages less compliance by intermediary elites, who fail to generate the money, valid information, and mobilized soldiers that the state demands, thus further weakening the Kremlin’s position. The security services might continue to play Whack-a-Mole with actual opponents, who would be vastly outnumbered by ordinary scofflaws.

However, I don’t think the spiral will necessarily go all the way to collapse. The situation could stabilize at a level where Putin simply has less control over his vast country, rather like the situation in the 1990s.

I generally favor decentralization and polycentricity, but the consequences of diminishing state control in Russia will depend on who fills the vacuum. Russians will not be better off if people like the Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin or the Chechen boss Ramzan Kadyrov prosper at the Kremlin’s expense. My late colleague Mancur Olson argued that a “stationary bandit” (a ruler who has a stable monopoly on power) is more likely to promote the national interest than a bunch of “roving bandits,” who will only extract resources for themselves.

A weaker central state would be vulnerable in a crisis, but that does not mean that Putin (or a likeminded successor) would necessarily avoid crises. Facing an explicit enemy, such as a foreign government or a breakaway republic, might generate some genuine patriotic support and help to restore state capacity. Thus the Kremlin might continue to pick fights within the borders of the Russian Federation and beyond.

Chinese investors with connections to the Chinese state might also increase their sway within Russia. I am not sure whether that would be good or bad for Russians–or the world.

A situation like this could last for a long time.

possible paths for the Ukraine war

  1. Russia regains momentum and expands its control of Ukrainian territory. Today, most non-Russian military experts discount this possibility, but war is unpredictable. Ukraine would certainly not give up, but it would experience rising external pressure to surrender some territory permanently.
  1. Russia holds a static defensive line, probably set back from the current front. (For instance, Russia would probably abandon Kherson and fall behind the Dnieper.) Ukraine would remain motivated to fight, but European support would become more questionable–and US support, too, if Republicans gain control of Congress or the White House. Putin would try to manage his domestic problems by maintaining a war footing and promising success in some undetermined future. The situation might stabilize, with Ukraine continuing to receive some foreign support and Russia managing to protect some of its 2022 gains. Sanctions would remain in place, but Europe would probably import some Russian energy, albeit less than it used in 2021. There might be considerable partisan warfare and perhaps some organized nonviolent resistance in Russian-occupied territory. The situation would be similar to 2014-22, but with new boundaries–and high costs for all.
  1. Ukraine continues to make breakthroughs. If Ukraine pushes deep into Zaporizhzhia Oblast, Russian forces in Melitopol, Kherson, and Crimea would be stranded on the wrong side of Ukrainian lines and in deep trouble. In that case:

a) Russia could experience a classic military defeat, as in 1905. Russia and Ukraine might or might not sign an armistice or a treaty, but in any event, the war would effectively end in Ukraine’s favor. Putin might survive by exercising repressive control, or he could be removed and replaced either by a better or a worse leader. The potential would certainly remain for Russia to start a new war later, but “rebuilding” an army that has turned out to be hollow would be a major undertaking.

b) Putin might try to avoid suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of Ukraine by escalating the conflict to include NATO. That would allow him either to salvage a victory by frightening NATO into demanding concessions from Ukraine or at least save face by presenting the West as his foe. (In that case, he would loosely resemble the Japanese military junta in 1945, who used the atomic bombings to cancel their own pledge to fight to the death). To escalate, Putin could:

  1. Attack Ukraine with weapons of mass destruction (WMD);
  2. Attack a NATO country with conventional weapons or cyber; or
  3. Attack a NATO country with WMDs.
  1. At this point, NATO would have a choice about whether and how to respond, ranging from a diplomatic effort to isolate Russia, to a targeted conventional or cyber attack, to a massive military strike on Russia itself. The possible outcomes would range from Putin’s backing down to uncontrolled escalation to WWIII.

I’m certainly hoping for #3a, a straightforward Ukrainian victory. It seems plausible, if only because Putin appears to hope that new troops will turn the tide, and that false hope could keep him fighting until he has simply lost. Again, war is unpredictable, but today’s reports of Ukrainian advances in Kherson Oblast make a victory seem more likely and a Russian rebound (#1) quite improbable. A stalemate (#2) would be harsh and unjust, but it is not difficult to imagine.

Russian escalation (#3b) is very dangerous for the world. I think it would most likely play out as a Russian WMD attack on Ukrainian military targets that prompts a global reaction that is not devastating and that gives Putin an excuse to settle the war. But the other possible results of #3b are all much worse.

an existential threat?

John Mearsheimer made the case against Ukraine on a well-attended panel discussion at the American Political Science Association. I don’t agree with those who disapprove of giving him a platform. If he’s wrong, his views should be aired so they can be rebutted, and I think that’s what happened when my Tufts colleague Oxana Shevel and other co-panelists debated him at APSA. If he has any actual insights, we should listen and use them.

I would emphasize a point that probably arose already in the panel discussion (some of which I had to miss). Mearsheimer said repeatedly that Russia faces an “existential threat” in Ukraine and is responding rationally and predictably. When he completed this phrase, it turned out not to mean a threat to Russia’s sovereignty, autonomy, or security within its borders. Mearsheimer meant a threat to Russia’s status as a great power.

I do not doubt that Putin and other Russian nationalists view a successful and European-oriented Ukraine as diminishing Russian global power. But this is the problem: Russia is not actually a great power.

In 2019, before the pandemic and the current full-scale war, Russia ranked right below Canada (population: 38 million) in GDP, and well below each of four European countries (Germany, the UK, France, and Italy). Its medium-term economic prospects were much worse than theirs because Russia is so dependent on fossil fuels. In population, Russia lies right between Bangladesh and Mexico (which has almost as big an economy), but its population has shrunk since 1992.

To be sure, Russia has a large military. In 2019, it ranked fourth in the world in military spending and sixth in the number of military personnel (at least on paper). But it arguably could not afford this expense. The Russian military cost 4.3% of its GDP, versus 3.7% in the USA, which nevertheless spent 11 times as much. That year, the proportion of the population that was enlisted in the military was four times as high in Russia as in the USA (an economic burden). And Russia was probably getting bad value for its military spending because of endemic corruption.

Russia has a vast supply of nuclear weapons, sufficient to end civilization. Nuclear weapons guarantee its security against a foreign invasion, and certainly pose a risk to other countries. Perhaps they are an asset in a conflict like the current one, because the US would be more likely to supply Ukraine with aircraft and long-distance guided missiles absent the nuclear threat. On the other hand, nuclear weapons are difficult to use to support conventional political aims.

It is a dilemma if Russia lacks the underlying basis for being a superpower yet views any events that diminish its great-power status as existential threats. However, the proposed solution of allowing Russia to act like a superpower is not only unjust; it is also unrealistic. Sooner or later, Russia must navigate the difficult road that Britain and France began to travel after 1945, reluctantly and incompletely acknowledging that they could no longer have empires. The USA should also make that transition, but in our case, the imperative is justice rather than necessity, since we actually retain the capacity to project global power.

See also: Russia in the larger history of decolonization; when states are blind