Understanding the War in Ukraine

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Andrew Buck, University of Southern Indiana

Jeffrey Hass, University of Richmond

If Twitter is a valid representation of academic discourse on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, then journalists, military scholars, and some economists and political scientists are go-to experts for insights. What can sociology add? The Russian invasion seems up our alley (states, organized conflict, political identities, transformations creative and destructive). Comparative-historical sociology (“CHS”) tends to explore broader social contexts and histories that channel proximal institutions and actors (e.g. Moore 1966). Without long-term forces that created nations and states, bureaucratic militaries, and economies, we would not have capacities for such violence. Y et historical analyses of institutional and structural evolution, and comparisons that reveal significance, can seem too broad or distant to help make sense of conflict here and now. If this is a valid worry, it also sells us short. CHS provides key tools for making sense of the Ukrainian tragedy. One lesson is to make regimes and coalitions more important to analyses—not as individual psychologies in particular institutional positions, but as concrete networks and groups with access to capital and coercive power of the state (Buck and Hass 2018).

CHS brought states back into the picture, which informed analyses in political sociology and political science about economic development, revolutions, political change, and other subjects (e.g. Haggard 1990; Skocpol 1979; Tilly 1992; Markoff 1996). As some form of democracy and markets spread across Europe and the globe in the 1990s, most sociologists turned their attention to global economic and political structures that compelled regimes to follow neoliberal and quasi-democratic policies. Globalization was driven by digital technologies and dominant trans-national organizations (the IMF and World Bank, multinational corporations, the US government). With the global economy as a (supposedly) homogenizing field, and the global polity presumed to follow (echoing thoughts before World War I), differences between countries became more about conflicts of interests and positions in the new global order, rather than varieties of regimes. If anything, forces of globalization and interdependency would mean regime differences would wash out.

Such scholarship produced important insights. Yet this says too little about proximal forces that contribute to reproduction, transformation, or catastrophe. We can accept that “leadership,” personal qualities of leaders, matters; but this hides social forces that facilitate, hinder, or reveal those qualities. We should follow the late Richard Lachmann (2000) to explore how social groups (especially elites, classes, and movements) interact: the nature of relations and resources they have. As Tilly argues in his work about democratization (2003), the trick is to measure variation in coercion, capital, and coalitions. Given coercion and capital, how do coalitions crystalize into regimes that can use or reshape the distribution of capital and coercion?

Coercion and capital

Let’s start with coercion and capital. According to Tilly (1992), some states achieve high capacity through coercion; others orient to capital, using trade to achieve high capacity. Historically, Slavic countries of the USSR were weak on capital and heavy on coercion (a bureaucratic military and internal police). In the 1990s, post-Soviet Russia let its military degrade, as was evident in both Chechen wars; Russian victory was possible only by razing Grozny, terrifying local populations, and installing a local dictator. After 2007, Putin’s regime increasingly asserted its reliance on coercion vis-à-vis capital in subsequent conflicts in Georgia, Crimea, Donbass, and Syria. In terms of capital under Putin, leaders of finance and profitable industries (“oligarchs”) received special treatment and access to the corridors of power. Oil and gas production remained important, although prices were near record lows in the 1990s. After de-privatizing large parts of the hydrocarbon industries and coercing oligarchs to pay more taxes, Putin’s regime began to see benefits of its growing control and increases in hydrocarbon prices, which improved Russia’s trade balances and state budget, facilitating massive reserves (much now frozen abroad) and possibilities for military and economic investment.

Ukraine, for its part, lost much coercive capacity after giving up its nuclear weapons in 1994. Ukraine no longer has easy hydrocarbon profits; institutional instability meant oligarchy and corruption. Ukraine has been among the poorest parts of Europe since 1991, without profitable exports to buoy its regime. The regime’s capital became increasingly tied to the country’s geographic position as a transportation corridor of pipelines from Russia to Europe. After the humiliation of losing Crimea and the Donbass in 2014, the Ukrainian government has invested in its military, including imposing military service. Ukraine also made overtures to enter NATO’s sphere of influence and perhaps gain membership. At the same time, post-Euromaidan Ukraine has improved trade with Europe and lessened its dependency on Russia. These planned and ongoing attempts to improve the Ukrainian state’s capacity and regime’s freedom of movement were part of Putin’s pretext to invade and “de-militarize” Ukraine.

If we focus on coercion and capital, we see that Russia had more resources at its disposal, and, even if these were less impressive in the reality of war, Russia still could bring much more to bear. Much like its historical predecessors of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, Putin’s regime abandoned the “free-trade” route to achieve high state capacity and relied on coercion again using military incursions into neighboring countries and threatening Europe with its natural resources. That is, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reflects the ability of Putin’s regime to threaten wider conflict with nuclear weapons and to turn off oil and gas supplies. Yet this “just-so” story elides two important questions: 1) Why did Putin decide to go to war, and 2) Why have Russia’s efforts at pursuing war—both in the field and in presenting their case—been so problematic to the point of incompetence and tragedy. We suggest the reason lies in coalitional histories, which channeled decisions and practices in different directions.


Hiding under all of this are the coalitions that ran these countries and who made the choices about whether and how to invest in remaking the state. Coalitions have social bases of different elites, classes, movements and outside actors. Immediately after the fall of the USSR, Russia and Ukraine both had fragile coalitions of competing political and economic elites that could swing regimes from one direction to another. Their regimes were riven by factionalism that made it hard for the state to do much, from successfully implementing reforms (beyond destroying the old) to collecting taxes. Putin and his coalition emerged as a reaction to the instability of 1990s offering to bring order to society. The goal from the beginning of Putin’s regime was not to have a single party state, but, according to one architect of Putinism(Pavlovsky 2014), a “one and a half party state” with formal trappings of democracy. Representatives of an opposition could complain, but never enough to make a serious change. This set-up has been remarkably stable. Putin remained in power for over 20 years, through five American presidents and five British prime ministers. Despite the instability of 1990s, the Kremlin has not had a transfer of power to an opposition since the fall of the communism. Y et what made this coalition successful also undercut its advantages of coercion and capital.

Initially, the Putin coalition was not homogenous. He came to power with the support of oligarchs, technocratic reformers, and fellow siloviki (security forces, literally a “power elite”). This initial coalitional structure was not static, and before long a coalitional structure emerged that, for all members’ differences in specific policies, shared a dirigiste approach to economic reform (Hass 2011). A market economy was not negative, but markets had to serve the state. And so those in the coalition who would not play by these new rules were purged, first when Putin and siloviki turned on some oligarchs (especially Mikhail Khodorkovskii).

Over time, Russia’s ruling coalition transformed, siloviki in the core and technocrats and others in an outer circle. Putin and siloviki invested in internal coercion under democratic façades (e.g. “managed” elections), from laws against dissent,to organizational expansion. Since 2014, Putin augmented the siloviki: giving more legal and financial means to the FSB and Federal Protective Service (akin to the Secret Service) and creating a praetorian guard (Rosgvardia). This had key effects. First, as the coalitional structure shifted from competing elites to an inner circle on the same page, Putin has worried less about dissent. Second, Putin was not initially a dictator; he became a dictator as the coalitional structure narrowed, raising his degrees of freedom. Third, thinning discourse at the top denied Putin counter-arguments against preconceived notions; siloviki increasingly told Putin what he wanted to hear, unlike earlier, when reformers might advise Putin to be more moderate to gain legitimacy or foreign investment. Additionally, managed democracy reduced open discourse that could signal problems and compel policy innovations. Finally, one consistent trait of Putin’s regime issystemic corruption that led some to label Russia a “kleptocracy” (Dawisha 2014). Much capital theoretically available for coercion, it seems, did not find its way into proclaimed investments, including the military, as Russian setbacks in Ukraine reveal: immense logistical errors, low- quality resources, and absence of newer- generation weapons suggest coercion lost out to corrupt capital flight. Tilly (1985) was more correct than he realized: state-making really can be like organized crime.

The contrast with coalitions in Ukraine is revealing. Successful popular mobilizations against corruption occurred twice while Putin’s ruling coalition narrowed and consolidated power. If Putin’s regime sometimes had to negotiate with oligarchs, they shaped popular mobilization via repression and co-optation. By contrast, confrontation in Ukraine between movements and competing elites during elections led to significant shifts in the structure and direction of the regime. The contentious politics of the Orange Revolution led to new presidential elections when opposition protests showed systematic corruption of the first results. After new elections in 2005 forced out the original (disputed) winner, continued swings between elites from western and eastern Ukraine came to a head in the dramatic, contentious events of 2013-2014 (Euromaidan), which forced president Yanukovich to flee Ukraine and destroyed the pro-Russian coalition. Even though goals of movements were not fully realized, confrontation forced elites to expand coalitions—just as Putin’s regime did the opposite. New coalitions that allowed open politics strengthened a sense of Ukrainian nationhood and popular buy-in facilitating mobilization against Russia; coalitions that facilitated closer ties with NATO and the EU meant more weapons to fight Russia.

The tools of CHS regarding states, organized violence, elites, and movements reveal how Russian versus Ukrainian regimes were going in different directions. An analysis of regimes offers a perspective on this conflict situated between globalization and the decisions of leaders in institutions. Recognizing underlying drivers of regimes—coercion, capital, and coalitions—reminds us that even if leaders change and global integration resumes, structural forces still shape regimes. Even among critics of globalization, few predicted in 1991 that democratization and marketization of Ukraine and Russia would lead to war between them thirty years later. Would war had been averted with different leaders? Most likely, yes, but Ukrainian, Russian, and global leaders still have to confront what faces these regimes after war: bureaucracies for coercion, hydrocarbon inheritance, and building coalitions.


Buck, Andrew and Jeffrey Hass. 2018. “Coalitional Configurations: A Structural Analysis of Democratization in the Former Soviet Union.” Demokratizatsiya 26/1: 25-54.

Dawisha, Karen. 2014. Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? New York: Simon & Schuster.

Haggard, Stephan. 1990. Pathways from the Periphery. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Hass, Jeffrey K. 2011. To the Undiscovered Country: Power, Culture, and Economic Change in Russia, 1988-2008. New York: Routledge.

Lachmann, Richard. 2000. Capitalists in Spite of Themselves. New York: Oxford University Press.

Markoff, John. 1996. The Abolition of Feudalism. University Park: Penn State Press.

Moore, Barrington. 1966. The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Pavlovsky, Gleb. 2014. “Interview.” New Left Review 88 (July/August): 57-58.
Skocpol, Theda. 1979. States and Social Revolutions. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tilly, Charles. 1985. “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime.” Pp. 169-191 in Bringing the State Back In, edited by Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tilly, Charles. 1992. Coercion, Capital, and European States. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Tilly, Charles. 2003. Contention and Democracy in Europe, 1650-2000. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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