Expert Commentary

Civil wars and public support for insurgencies: Applying an “epidemic model” to Ukrainian history

2013 study in Conflict Management and Peace Science testing a new model of how civilians chose between sides during civil wars, with a case study involving Ukraine.

The thesis that wars have fundamentally changed since the fall of the Soviet Union and that we have entered a phase of so-called “new wars” has in the last 15 years attracted a lot of scholarly attention. Advocates of this hypothesis argue that military conflicts today are mostly shaped by asymmetrical and privatized warfare. One central aspect of their argument is that civil wars have replaced wars between states as the dominant form of armed conflict.

Some empirical assessments of the New War hypothesis have yielded mixed results. However, the prominence of the ongoing intrastate conflict in Eastern Ukraine — particularly in Donetsk and Luhansk, where separatists held a vote not recognized by the international community in early November 2014 — as well as the bloody path of the jihadist movement Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) bolster the argument that traditional interstate warfare is more and more a concept of the past.

A growing body of research has been focusing on exploring the micro-dynamics of these trends and conflicts. The strategic behavior and victimization of civilians in internal conflicts is one significant focus area and new research continues to produce insights. For example, a 2014 paper from Yale and Princeton finds that civilian attitudes toward insurgents can be used as a predictor of insurgent violence.

In a 2013 study, “An Epidemic Model of Violence and Public Support in Civil War,” Yuri M. Zhukov, then of Harvard University and now at the University of Michigan, contributes to the research about civilian behavior during intra-state conflict. In a game-theory framework — a way of modeling human choices that now underlies much social science research and study of human behavior — Zhukov analyzes different civil strategies and how these shape the responses of combatants. He notes that for civilians, civil wars are risky:

Cooperation with insurgents invites punishment by the government, and cooperation with the government invites punishment by insurgents. Combatants make strategic choices based on expectations of how civilians will respond to this punishment: by “balancing” against the side that inflicts the most costs, or by “bandwagoning” with it.

The paper, published in the journal Conflict Management and Peace Science, also uses the Ukrainian counterinsurgency against the Soviet Union at the end of World War II as a case study to test the model’s predictions.

The key findings include:

  • Civilian balancing and bandwagoning have opposing effects on combatant behavior: “When civilians balance, the violent interaction becomes a race to the bottom: victory will go to whichever side can minimize civilian costs. When civilians bandwagon, the interaction becomes a race to the top: victory will go to the side willing to hurt civilians the most. In this sense, bandwagoning is inefficient: it creates incentives for the escalation of punishment, increasing the human and material costs of war.”
  • Information asymmetry — uncertainty on one side of the conflict about the motivations and knowledge of the other side — is one of the key reasons for civilian bandwagoning strategies: “If combatants are unsure of how civilians respond to punishment, the balancing equilibrium breaks down and high levels of violence can emerge.”
  • Once combatants are freed of constraints, the level of violence depends on the division of territorial control: “Where territorial control is evenly divided between insurgents and the government, expectations of civilian bandwagoning create incentives for two-sided violence. Where one side has incomplete territorial control, violence by the weaker combatant is likely. Where one side has complete con­trol, violence by the stronger combatant is likely.”
  • The author tests his hypotheses by applying them to the Ukrainian insurgency against Soviet rule at the end of World War II. “As the balance of territo­rial control shifted from parity to partial and then near-complete Soviet control, opportunities and motivations for punishment changed in telling ways.”
  • In this situation, “the epidemic model predicts symmet­ric levels of selective violence under divided control, and asymmetric levels of violence under incomplete and total control, with the disadvantaged side more likely to escalate in the first case and the dominant side more likely to escalate in the second.” The author finds that the predictions of his model are consistent with real-world events.

The author concludes: “We should acknowledge that bandwagoning is a frequent feature of civil conflict, and try to identify potential patterns of violence that we may otherwise overlook or underpredict.” Since bandwagoning strategies can lead to high civil costs but cannot be easily prevented, the author suggests that “our best hope may be to make bandwagoning consequences less extreme. As simulations sug­gest, civilian casualties decline as one side consolidates its control and violence becomes more selective. If we are only interested in protecting civilians from their own worst instincts, the simplest policy solution may be to choose a side, help ensure its decisive victory, and let civilians find safety in the shadow of the Leviathan.”

Related research: Yuri M. Zhukov has also produced other research on what he calls the “often neglected case of Soviet counter-insurgency operations in Western Ukraine,” with implications for today and the current Russia-Ukraine conflict. For more, see “Examining the Authoritarian Model of Counter-insurgency: The Soviet Campaign Against the Ukrainian Insurgent Army,” published in the journal Small Wars and Insurgencies.

Scholars have also been studying other aspects of insurgency and intrastate conflict, including: The role of religion in driving conflict among groups; the predictable patterns around protests and coups; the treatment of women and the use of sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war; the issue of how technology and the density of mobile phones affect the chances of violence; the uses and drawbacks of air power in fighting insurgencies; the consequence of spikes in commodity prices, or “food price shocks”; and even fundamental issues such as the motivations for killing and violence are seeing more scholarly inquiry.

Keywords: war, armed conflict, interstate war, intra-state war, civil wars, proxy wars, Ukraine, Russia, Vladimir Putin


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