Listening to analysts from the West, one gets the impression that Ukraine’s fate was sealed the moment Putin attacked on 3 fronts two days ago. On the other hand, reading reports from Ukraine (including from eyewitnesses and event participants), one can only conclude that Putin’s planned “victorious” military escapade is turning into a complete disaster. Why the difference?
As a social system Russia represents the epitomy of hierarchy, as embodied in autocracy. In this system, the voice of the individual does not matter. Soldiers are sent into battle without knowledge of their objectives. Commanders’ orders are expected to be followed — no questions asked. As the old Soviet adage states: “You’re the boss, I’m an idiot. When I become the boss, you’ll be the idiot”. Putin is the uber-boss and so unquestioned. His underlings derive their legitimacy from their proximity to the boss — much like feudal lords 300 years ago.
Then there’s Ukraine — a country where anyone who claims the title “leader” is immediately scoffed; where “anarchist” is a slightly flattering label; where society is organized around grass-roots initiatives, rather than top-down commands; where people trust each other but distrust anything related to government. This is a country of agency with a strange cultural mix that values individual freedom in the extreme, but also provides and expects collective responsibility. Hierarchy is despised. Personal leadership is always problematic.
Traditionally we have always believed hierarchies to be more effective than groups — particularly in the military realm. Despite a wonderful book on the subject by US General McChrystal (“Team of teams”) that describes the anti-hierarchical structures that led to the US victory over ISIS in Iraq, the stereotype remains: armies need commanding leaders to be effective.
Now look at what is happening in Ukraine. The Russians have been given orders to attack. They are better equipped; they are better trained. And they are dying and/or being captured in massive numbers.
The Ukrainians are organized in small autonomous teams. It was these heterarchic structures that led to their success during the Maidan protests in 2014, and then proved hugely effective in the volunteer battalions that repelled Russia’s first invasion attempts in the Donbas 8 years ago. The teams include trained soldiers backed up by volunteers, individual hackers, vigilant civilians with social media…
Now let’s switch from military issues to organizational sociology. Hierarchies were typical (and effective) structures for industrial society. In a post-industrial world, the structures of choice are heterarchies — teams. Ford and GM are hierarchies. Facebook and Google are heterarchies.
During the last few days the phrase “This war is not just about Ukraine” has been grossly overused. Most who repeat it mean that after swallowing Ukraine, Putin will continue (like Hitler did after Poland) to threaten other countries. But there is more to this statement than the threat of Russian aggression. This war (like others before it) is about ideology in the sense that the winning side will dictate what ideas will define organizatonal structures after the war is over.
In this sense it is a “civilizational” conflict between the future and the past. The past is dying on the multiple battlefields of Ukraine: Russian soldiers tragically demonstrating the ineffectiveness of hierarchy. Maybe several decades ago, if Putin had decided to invade his neighbor with the intention of installing a puppet government, he may have had a chance of success. But in a post-industrial world, where battlefield information can be made available instantly via social media by any motivated citizen, orders from above don’t lead to victory. A well motivated and loosely organized team does.
All of the above does not mean Ukrainians have already won. But they’ve got an excellent chance. And if they do rout the Russian invader, the significance of Ukraine’s victory will mean much more to the world than the survival of a democratic state in Europe. It will signal the effectiveness of the post-industrial paradigm of heterarchic teams. The future will have won over the past.
To make it happen Ukrainians need air support!
* Thoughts from Kyiv is a series of flash essays by Mychailo Wynnyckyj from February 2022