An Argument for the Importance of Org. Structure in the Rebellion in East Ukraine

They say your best ideas come in the shower, and while I doubt what follows is one of my best ideas, it did come in the shower last week. Earlier this year, Michigan’s own Yuri Zhukov gave a lecture titled “Trading Hard Hats for Combat Helmets: The Economics of Rebellion in East Ukraine.” Rather than make a hash of paraphrasing the main thrust of his research, I’ll just quote from the published summary:

Using new data on violence and economic activity in East Ukraine, Professor Zhukov will evaluate the relative power of “identity-based” and “economic” explanations of domestic political conflict. Identity-based explanations expect areas inhabited by Russian speakers to see higher levels of rebellion against the Ukrainian government, while economic explanations suggest that rebellion will be most pervasive in areas potentially harmed by trade openness with the EU and trade barriers with Russia. Zhukov asserts that the driving factors behind the Donbas rebellion are economic, rather than cultural. Even after adjusting for factors like Russian language, exposure to Russian state television coverage, proximity to the border, policing, population density, terrain, roads, and spillover from neighboring towns, his findings reveal that the size of the local mining and industrial labor force remains the strongest predictor of rebel activity and the most consistent determinant of a municipality’s likelihood of remaining under rebel control.

What may not be obvious from the summary (and fair enough, it’s a summary after all) is the connection between potential harm from “trade openness with the EU and trade barriers with Russia” and local mining and industrial activities. In fact, it is these types of economic activity which are the most vulnerable to either competition from within the European Union or the loss of access to Russian markets, both of which were somewhere between likely and certain had the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement been signed in 2013.* So the claim that “the size of the local mining and industrial labor force remains the strongest predictor of rebel activity and the most consistent determinant of a municipality’s likelihood of remaining under rebel control” is evidence in favor of the idea that rebels have been motivated predominantly (or maybe most importantly) by concern for their economic well-being. This makes a lot of sense in the abstract – if your livelihood was under threat, you might fight fairly hard to defend it.

But in the Ukrainian case I think the actual causal mechanism for this phenomenon remains to be filled in. Given what we know about the influence of external actors, and given how nebulous an enemy a free-trade agreement is, a narrative in which rebel activity occurs in the Donbas as a specific and calculated popular response to perceived economic threats seems incomplete. What if, instead (or in addition), “outmoded heavy industry threatened by EU imports and/or dependent on Russian customers” is a marker for something like, “fairly centralized labor forces that can be controlled and mobilized in a top-down manner and are therefore susceptible to instrumentalization by political elites”

Dispersed, 50-person firms in the service industry are not going to be terribly easy to “use” in any helpfully (from the rebels’ point of view) rebellious way. But the multi-thousand strong workforce of a smelting plant (which may anyway be predisposed towards responding to top-down commands in a way that, say, the staff of a digital media firm with a relatively flat org. chart might not be) can be more easily repurposed, if you will, for rebellion. So the very structure of the employment which predominates in the areas that exhibit more rebel activity makes it that much easier for rebel activity to be effectively initiated, controlled, and sustained by elites. Perhaps, then, a significant part of the story is that political and economic elites with interests that would be threatened by the DCFTA found themselves sitting atop economic assets with pre-existing employment structures that were especially conducive to facilitating armed rebellion.** Depending on the amount of agency one wishes to assign to local actors, it may be that the economic relationships Zhukov identified as particularly significant are thus because they signify the presence of a type of firm structure that facilitates elite capture and usage of local populations. For what it’s worth, this fits decently well with the initial contours of the Maidan protests and the subsequent toppling of Yanukovich (before Putin decided to hijack parts of Ukraine in the external pursuit of internal legitimacy), in which a pro-rule-of-law and pro-West (yes, yes, that is a squishy term) opposition took on the entrenched interests of a kleptocratic oligarchy based in Ukraine’s eastern provinces.

*See page 1 here
**I suppose it is also possible, in this version of events, that these elites had other motivations entirely and simply saw these employment structures as handy tools