‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Investments: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Ukrainian Commanders but Were Afraid to Ask
Michael Komin and Alexander Vileykis
The military conflict in the southeast of Ukraine is creating a vast field of research in the most diverse areas and has led to the creation of a local but ongoing combat zone with all its attendant social ramifications. A large number of volunteer battalions were formed within Ukraine during the first months of the war, which became some of its main players. As demonstrated by previous local conflicts in the post-Soviet space like the Chechnya wars and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the majority of such confrontations do not end when the situation is resolved by the governments of the parties involved. As many of these conflicts have the characteristics of a local civil war, a number of political, social, and cultural shifts occur in the conflict zone itself. The participants, the volunteers of the battalions who find themselves involved in the conflict for an extended period of time may, when the conflict’s hot phase ends, be transformed in the public consciousness from defenders of the homeland into an illegal military group. It is the fact of these fighters’ voluntary participation in the hostilities that complicates their subsequent return to civilian life. This occurs especially if a battalion took on substantial political weight over the course of a conflict and later endeavors to influence the situation in domestic policy. As is apparent in the example of the conflict in Mukacheve, this is now a matter of immediate concern for Ukrainian policy and national security.
Thus, the present research is devoted to an examination of the causes and consequences of this issue, and to the phenomenon of members of this battalion making so-called “non-transferable investments.”  The core question posed is the following: how do the personal and social characteristics of the commander of a volunteer battalion affect the level of general non-transferable investments? This research aims to test two hypotheses.
Hypothesis 1. The number of non-transferable investments made by a volunteer battalion overall is directly dependent on the commander of that battalion.
Hypothesis 2. A battalion commander’s propensity for making non-transferable investments depends on his personal and social characteristics.
The research examines the following empirical material: volunteer battalions formed during the Ukraine–Russia conflict in 2014–2015; personal and social characteristics of the commanders of those battalions; the battalions’ activities during the conflict; media coverage of their activities; and the official assessment of their activities by Ukrainian authorities.
To this end, the following research methods were used:
To test the first hypothesis, the paper shall turn to classical works on the interaction between a leader and a given social group.
In his work, “The Psychology of Evil,” studying the phenomenon of non-transferable investments made by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib, Philip Zimbardo attempts to refute the classic notion that an inclination toward sadistic violence is an innate deviation in a human being. Rather, it is relatively rare and applies to only 5 % of humans overall.The researcher posited that anyone—even the most seemingly normal person—is capable of cruelty and outward manifestations of violence if a number of factors are present. The core issue Zimbardo studied is that soldiers committed such acts against prisoners of war because they considered this to be the most fully “good” performance of the social role assigned to them; namely, they believed that by beating and abusing prisoners of war they would be able to obtain useful information from them, thereby gaining favor with the command structure.
Based on empirical data obtained during the Stanford prison experiment, based on the Abu Ghraib issue, the research concludes that normal people will begin to use violence if four factors are present at the same time: (1) anonymity; (2) impunity (the relieving of responsibility); (3) an image of hatred with respect to the victims of the violence; and (4) an environment of brutality. For the manifestation of the most brutal forms of violence, which include pillaging, abuse of prisoners, and the mass killing of civilians, it is important that all these conditions be met in their totality.
As can be noted, three of the four factors were present in the conflict in Southeast Ukraine. The image of an enemy did indeed exist, the environment was demanding, and ski masks and camouflage provided a sufficient degree of anonymity. As such, the only difference between battalions that made non-transferable investments and others is the fourth factor: impunity. Impunity, the removal of responsibility from the individual, in and of itself provides additional motivation to take this action as the best execution of the social role (warrior) in which he finds himself. Thus, the more violent his behavior, the better he manifests the required qualities, namely more successfully than those around him. The individual is capable of performing actions condemned by society when he is relieved of all responsibility for those actions. At that moment he believes even the murder of another can deliver the maximum benefit in his social group.
In field conditions in a civil war, however, only commanders can provide soldiers with such impunity. Therefore, the level of non-transferable investments by fighters is dependent on the commander’s personal and social traits. In essence, a battalion commander becomes a “local dictator,” a figure who builds a new social reality around the battalion. The commander is the sole source of orders that place the soldiers in certain social roles. In a civil war, there is weak vertical control over the commander himself and more often than not, an absence of control from higher levels. But even if such control exists, it is extremely difficult to exercise it at any given moment, since in conditions of constant combat it is the commander’s duty to make operational decisions.
An experiment by another social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, supports the idea outlined above by appealing to human psychology. The experiment designed by the researcher, where the test subject is supposed to obey another subject’s orders (fulfill his role), revealed shocking results. The experiment consisted of simulated training where the subject was supposed to ask questions and, in the case of an incorrect answer, press a button that would produce an electric shock. When the readings on the scale approached “point XXX” (a lethal dose), screams and pleas to stop could be heard from the other side of a wall, but the head of the experiment insisted that the test continue. Ultimately, two thirds of psychologically “normal” people were able to continue to the point of “killing” the test subject. This experiment demonstrates that the presence of the factors identified by Zimbardo and the individual’s desire to perform his social role as well as possible are capable of causing a person to commit non-transferable investments. The key factor in making these investments is impunity; in this case an “endorsement” from an individual who possesses a higher social status in a given group. The commander of a volunteer battalion in Southeastern Ukraine fully meets this criterion.
The direct relationship between a commander’s personality and the number of non-transferable investments made by the battalion may be viewed from a sociological standpoint as well. A description of this idea is found in a work by American sociologist Erving Goffman devoted to the shaping of attitudes in US military regiments during the Second World War. Goffman attempted to find a correlation between soldiers’ behavior on the battlefield and in territory they occupied, as well as certain social and cultural traits of the soldiers themselves. The initial hypothesis was similar to commonly accepted dogma: sociologists had previously believed that the key factor in a unit’s behavior was the personality traits of the overwhelming majority of the soldiers. That is, if a large number of criminal or marginal subjects were gathered in one unit, that military unit would have a greater probability of doing “bad things;” looting, for example.
Goffman’s work makes it clear that this hypothesis was invalid. Even detachments consisting mostly of criminal subjects displayed heroism on the battlefield and strictly followed the command’s orders. Yet other units that seemed less disposed to doing “bad things” did commit serious crimes. The best example supporting this hypothesis is the 101st Airborne Division, the “Screaming Eagles,” which in 1944 consisted mostly of criminals, but performed in an exemplary fashion during the Bastogne operation.
In addition, Goffman offers an alternative theory that is empirically confirmed in his research. The attitude and combat capabilities of a regiment are determined not by the overall number of soldiers, but by one or two active actors who often instill an image of their behavior in the unit. If a person appears in the unit and begins to actively urge his comrades to treat the local population cruelly and he himself is the first to begin acting in this manner, there is a greater probability that others in the unit will adopt an identical attitude.
Further evidence of this theory is present in an experiment by French social psychologist Serge Moscovici demonstrating that an active minority forces other members of a group to abandon their own position. The experiment studied the ability of an active minority to impose their point of view on an agreeable or passive majority. The results showed that even a small but active group of agitators is capable of bringing those around them to their (often objectively false) point of view. It is this phenomenon that makes the study of a commander’s personality important, as in a volunteer battalion (as opposed to regular troops) the commander is the primary source of ideas for the entire unit. It is he who shapes the battalion, meaning that he translates his values to the rest of the unit.
Thus, considering the aforementioned factors, analyzing the reasons for a battalion to make non-transferable investments, requires an understanding of the reasons for taking such actions on the part of the commander himself. The present hypothesis is that the personal and social traits of the commander influence this process. This issue, as well as the very concept of non-transferable investments, is examined in the following section.
The term “non-transferable investments” was coined by political scientist Milan Svolik in his article, “Moral Hazard in Authoritarian Repression and the Fate of Dictators.” He posits that a dictator in an authoritarian regime commits a number of acts that on one hand are aimed at strengthening his influence (persecution of his opposition, corruption, cronyism, and so forth) and on the other hand increase the chance of his prosecution should he be removed from power (a tribunal, imprisonment, or death penalty). Svolik terms as non-transferable investments those actions by a dictator that simultaneously satisfy two of these conditions, i.e., investments that an autocrat may only use while he is in power. Non-transferable investments are analogous to fraud, scams in a sort of abstract game that allows one to quickly achieve maximum gain, but at the same time threatens harsh punishment.
Expanding on this theme, Russian political scientist and economist Ivan Lyubimov applies the logic of the “dictator’s dilemma” to individuals who possess a substantial amount of authoritarian control in certain conditions that are limited in time and resources. As an example the author suggests military commanders in Argentina who repressed soldiers and robbed the civilian population with no fear of prosecution as long as they controlled a given territory. In such situations, local autocrats become “permanent bandits” who seek to increase their wealth by making non-transferable investments.
Meanwhile, the individual faces a dilemma: by committing these illegal or illicit acts he will reap a windfall of benefits and privileges. However, if he loses power, the risks of payback increase. In order to make a decision the person must predict how the situation will play out and assess the probability and seriousness of prosecution in the worst case scenario.
In the framework of this study, it is assumed that the conditions of civil war pose a similar dilemma for commanders of military units, because with weak oversight from higher authorities and hostilities taking place within his own country, a volunteer battalion commander has total authority within the territory in which the battalion is operating. Thus, it is possible to apply the theory of non-transferable investments for the purpose of examining processes that occurred within Ukraine from May 2014 through March 2015. It was during this period that the executive authorities and the high command of Ukraine exercised the least control over the battalions’ actions. Therefore, the empirical portion of this study is built on a content analysis of mass media, open Internet sources and official documents from Ukraine’s government bodies that describe and characterize the actions of the battalions and their commanders during this period.
The following actions by battalion commanders served as examples of non-transferable investments:
It is important to note that the third item was the most common type of non-transferable investment made by commanders of Ukrainian volunteer battalions during the period in question. In accordance with the theory described earlier, the present paper considers all other actions by commanders to be transferable investments, i.e. actions that could benefit the battalion commander even after he loses that status.
The second hypothesis of this study involves the following question: what motivates a volunteer battalion commander to make non-transferable investments? To find an answer, the “Theory of an Authoritarian Personality,” as outlined by a group of researchers, was applied.
Using methods of psychological analysis and associative testing, an F scale makes it possible to determine to what extent a given individual is capable of becoming a “local dictator.”  The authors of the theory identify four main causes of the process: (1) the individual’s personal history, (2) his personality traits, (3) his degree of satisfaction with his current social status, and (4) his current social setting.
In the framework of the study these criteria were operationalized, which led to the following indicators:
Additionally, based on data from items 3 and 4, the authors formulated a secondary categorical indicator 8, and based on data from 2, 3, and 5 obtained secondary categorical indicator 9:
The theoretical rationale for obtaining indicators 8 and 9 is based on French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of transformation of various types of capital and on an adaptation of that theory proposed by contemporary Russian historian and political scientist Georgi Derluguian.
The theory of capital transformation posits that an individual’s capital (be it social, political, economic, or symbolic) may increase or transform from one into another through certain actions. In this regard, each of these types of capital requires practical implementation, which compels the individual to perform actions. In his work, Derluguian notes that a high level of symbolic capital (advanced education, broad erudition, and a high level of intelligence), but a rather low level of other types of capital is typical for most people in the post-Soviet space. For people there, this phenomenon creates a high degree of dissatisfaction with one’s social status. The individual thus seeks to transform his symbolic capital into other types of capital – political, economic, or social.
In the conflict in the southeast of Ukraine, most commanders possessed a high level of symbolic capital (education and a high degree of public activity), and therefore sought to use the military conflict and their position as a battalion commander to transform it into:
Thus, the need to transform symbolic capital into another type of capital becomes a key motivation for the battalion commander to make transferable or non-transferable investments. In this regard, each specific instance of transformation displays particular aspects:
However, even when a commander is unable to achieve the desired level of capital, in many cases no transition to non-transferable investments occurs, because additional personal and social traits, which were operationalized earlier, affect the commander’s “willingness” to do “bad things.”
The empirical portion of this study also analyzes the effect of a constellation of social and personality traits, the level of an individual’s predisposition to take risks, and the need to transform symbolic capital into ultimately making non-transferable investments.
The present study examined thirty of the largest volunteer battalions that operated during the conflict in Southeastern Ukraine. It is worth noting that from the beginning, the sample excluded the military unit commanded by a major Ukrainian political figure, Dmitry Yarosh, because he differs significantly from other battalion commanders and requires analysis using entirely different methods.
In total, the study analyzed:
Information was collected on each commander based on the indicators listed earlier. The resulting data was then digitized and, subsequently, correlation analysis was used to determine the effect of each factor on a commander’s predisposition to make non-transferable investments.
The resulting dependence is presented in Table 1. The results require some theoretical interpretation and a search for causal links. These shall be examined step-by-step.
1. The closer a subject’s age is to 40, the greater his propensity to make non-transferable investments. This correlation is based on the phenomenon of the “post-Soviet man” described by Derluguian. The generation of the 1980s in post-Soviet countries possesses the greatest sense of “lost opportunities” (after the fall of the USSR and the rise of capitalism on the 1990s). They are simultaneously seeking a means of self-realization, possess sufficient symbolic capital, and have a significant amount of time for an abrupt career upswing. To make this career advance, they are prepared to make non-transferable investments. In direct contrast, the younger generation (27–35) does not see the current conflict as their “last chance” and are thus less inclined to do “bad things.” The older generation (47-60) does not feel ready to “stake everything.”
2.1. A subject’s military education reduces his propensity to make non-transferable investments. This consistent pattern can be explained as follows: battalion commanders who received a military (Soviet) education are the least likely to perceive a military conflict as a source of personal enrichment.
2.2. A subject’s education level does not affect his propensity to make non-transferable investments. The overall results regarding this correlation vary. On one hand, the commanders who were more highly educated possess greater symbolic capital and have a greater need to transform it into some other kind of capital. On the other hand, the better-educated commanders more often than not have a higher social status and occupy a higher position in society, which means they are less prepared to take risks and make non-transferable investments.
3. A criminal past or record increases the propensity to make non-transferable investments. This pattern was to be expected. Individuals who had previously committed crimes have lower moral and social barriers against doing “bad things,” and also have a higher propensity to take risks, which prompts them to make non-transferable investments.
4.1. An individual’s participation in entrepreneurial activities increases the propensity to make non-transferable investments. This pattern is also explained by a subject’s greater propensity for risk-taking if he has been involved in business activities. It should be understood that in post-Soviet Ukraine any entrepreneurial activities, especially medium and large businesses, involve heightened risk.
4.2. An individual’s participation in public and political activities has no effect on the propensity to make non-transferable investments. Just as in item 2.2, no distinct correlation could be found between a commander’s public and political engagement and his willingness to make non-transferable investments. On one hand, a commander’s experience in this area raises his symbolic capital; on the other hand, that symbolic capital is based upon society supporting some of his merits, and committing acts that society views as immoral may lead to the loss of what the commander already has.
4.3. An individual’s participation in the activities of security services (police or intelligence agencies) reduces the propensity to make non-transferable in-
Type of activity
Social status (pre-conflict)
Social statue (post-conflict)
Propensity to take risks
Transformation of symbolic capital
vestments. This interrelation is explained by an already considerable amount of co-opting of the commander into the existing elite. In this situation, his further career in the security services depends on how much his actions in the post of commander meet the expectations of the leadership.
5. The lower the individual’s pre-conflict social status, the greater the propensity to make non-transferable investments. This pattern was expected. Commanders whose pre-conflict social status was fairly low have greater ambitions than their colleagues, and need more to increase their economic capital.
6. The higher the social status (career, income level) an individual attains during a certain period, the lower the propensity to make non-transferable investments in the future. This correlation attests to the efficiency of the mechanism by which the battalion commanders are assimilated into the existing economic or political elite. Early coopting may serve as a reward for the more successful commanders who commit only socially approved acts. Such cooptation may also serve as added incentive for other commanders.
7. For patterns related to ‘propensity for risk’ and ‘need to transform symbolic capital’ see the analysis in the paragraph above.
Based on the data obtained and on previously described patterns, we offer a summary classification of battalion commanders by dividing them into three groups according to the level of non-transferable investments they made. This classification is displayed in Table 2.
High level of non-transferable investments
Medium level of non-transferable investments
Low level of non-transferable investments
• Kokhanivsky, Mikola, OUN
• Polischuk, Aleksandr, Ivano-Frankovsk Battalion
• Semenchenko, Semyon (Konstantin Grishin), Donbas Battalion
• Bereza, Yuri, Dnepr-1 Battalion
• Fedorenko, Aleksandr, Poltava 2 Battalion
• Yagolenko, Andriy, Slobozhanschina Battalion
Examples of non-transferable investments
• Most common example is a commander abandoning his battalion during the Ilovaisk Kettle (Battle of Ilovaisk) to save his own life. Such actions caused the death of many soldiers.
Key reasons for making non-transferable investments
Key factors preventing the making of non-transferable investments
• Criminal past
• Inclination to take risks
• Social activity preventing being coopted into positions of power
• Long period of low social status that prevents being coopted into power
• Military education prevents the making of such investments, as this changes the person’s attitude toward conflict
• Past participation in brutal military conflicts
This research established a clear correlation between the personality and social characteristics of battalion commanders and the “bad things” done by the battalion, and consequently the level of non-transferable investments made by the commander personally. A strong link was also noted between the commander and the behavior of his battalion, namely, hypothesis 1 can be considered confirmed. There is a further link between the social characteristics of a commander examined according to the F-scale method and his further behavior during a conflict.
In summary, it can be said that the present methodology makes it possible to identify potential war criminals who are prepared to make non-transferable investments in the course of a conflict. This theory has broad practical applications. It may be used to predict which individuals will resort to non-transferable investments in a nascent conflict, such that it is now possible to prevent some war crimes and thus reduce the number of victims of a given confrontation.
Information sources for content analysis
Michael Komin is a MA student at Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg.
Alexander Vileykis is a BA student at St. Petersburg State University.