This post is the second of a series that deals with the core of the foresight and warning analytical process. The first post explained the mapping process and how to move from factors to variables. Here we focus on the second challenge analysts and participants to workshops face: how to include actors relevant to the question as objectively as possible.

The process we use to map an issue or a foresight and warning question seems simple enough, especially once one understands what is a variable and how to specify it, as we saw and explained in detail previously. However, when done, notably within a workshop setting, when different participants brainstorm to map as well and as quickly as possible variables and how they influence each other, we face a another challenge, or rather two challenges: actors, labelled quickly and almost reflexively, and “factors” tend to be lumped together as if they were identical.

Types of actors

If we continue using our case study on the crisis in Ukraine, and what would have been identified during the first steps of a mapping as bearing upon the issue, we see in the drawing below that we have factors, coloured in grey, which must be transformed into variables, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, actors, coloured in light blue.

sorting factors actors

The types of actors, here, are intergovernmental organizations (NATO, IMF etc.), independent states (Russia, Germany, the U.S. etc.), areas with disputed status internationally (Crimea), parts of the modern state (Ukraine state administration, Russian military, Ukrainian military, etc.), political authorities (Kiev government), corporate actors including those that are more or less related to the state and to political authorities (Russian energy companies, Russian banks, Western banking system, etc.) and groups more or less constituted but thought to be meaningful by participants and analysts (Tatar, Pro-Russian Ukrainians, Neutral Ukrainians, etc.).

The identification of actors relevant to the Ukrainian crisis should actually be completed and detailed throughout the analysis or workshop to include all different political parties, groups etc., as we did for Syria.

Ukraine oligarchs, strategic foresight, actors, strategic warning, analysis
Source: Sławomir Matuszak, “The oligarchic democracy”, OSW Studies – 09/2012, p.57 – Click for larger image.

For example, the importance of various oligarchs and their factions, should definitely be considered: e.g. Sławomir Matuszak, “The oligarchic democracy: the influence of business groups on Ukrainian politics“, Center For Eastern Studies OSW, N 42, Sept 2012; Olha Holoyda, “Ukrainian Oligarchs and the “Family”, a New Generation of Czars—or Hope for the Middle Class?“, IREX, U.S. Embassy Policy Specialist Program (EPS), August 2013; Yuri Bender, “In the wake of turmoil, the role of Ukraine’s oligarchs is under scrutiny“, Financial Times, March 27, 2014; Richard Balmforth, “Ukraine’s ‘Chocolate King’ could edge new-look Yulia for president“, Reuters, Mar 30, 2014.

Looking for objective labels

For our case study, I have used labels for the actors that were and are commonly used by experts and the media, as would most likely be done during the first step of a mapping.

At first glance, those labels reflect the concern of many actors. For example, when we label groups as “pro-Russian” or “anti-Russian”, we use as defining characteristics a stance towards Russia, which is of concern to some actors (e.g. Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, Address to the Duma, 18 March 2014). In the case of U.S. official speeches (e.g. U.S. Department of State, remarks on Ukraine, or “Full Transcript – President Obama gives speech addressing Europe, Russia on March 26“), we tend to find rather mention of “ethnic Russians”, notably because of the American position aiming at showing Russia’s infringement of international principles. Diplomatically, for the U.S., using as the media or experts do a label that would envision that some Ukrainians are pro-Russian, would be entering a minefield.

Donetsk Yet, if we look at what is happening on the ground, and despite the difficulty to do so considering the propaganda war at work on all sides, it would indeed seem that some Ukrainians are pro-Russians, as show, for example, the photos of protests in Donetsk on 1 March 2014 (on Youtube), in Kharkov (Kharkiv) , Odessa, Lugansk, with varying attendance according to cities (not that the video also show Pro-Ukraine anti-Russian protests, indicating the polarization of the population). As could have been expected considering this stance, regional administrative buildings were indeed seized on 6 April 2014 in the cities of Donetsk, Kharkov (Kharkiv) and Lugansk, by protestors asking for a referendum as in Crimea (Lina Kushch & Thomas Grove, Reuters, 7 April 2014) – see Euronews video. According to the Ukrainian interior ministry, weapons would have been seized in Lugansk, while, on 7 April, Ukrainian authorities would have retaken the building in Kharkov (Grove, Reuters, 7 April 2014).

The specific labelling according to actors (e.g. U.S., Russia, etc.) shows a first element of the challenge that lies in naming actors, as names and labels may be construed as a political statement.

crisis in Ukraine, Russia, Ukraine, analysis strategic foresight and warning, actorsFurthermore, the specific light projected upon an actor (in our example “Pro-Russian Ukrainians”), even if their stance as well as the perspective of other actors on it need to be considered and neither denied nor ignored, may also influence the mapping and thus introduce a bias by forcing this very concern upon the actor. In other words, when we use as label something such as “Pro-Russian Ukrainians”, we tend to see these groups through a singular lens, and we force them (virtually) into defining themselves only or principally through their stance towards Russia. By doing so, we limit our understanding of the complexity of actors, and may then, through related actions, because actions evolve from analysis, create a black and white situation with very limited options, that may be felt by actors as an ultimatum. On the contrary, considering the complexity and reality of actors will not only lead to a better and more accurate analysis but also, as a result, reintroduce fluidity in the situation, and leads to more and better options for all actors.

EuromaidanPRFor example, to consider the various Ukrainian actors’ demands, we should not only focus on the position held regarding Russia, but also pay attention to explicit the pro-European stance of some political actors and units, again through the adequate string of variables.

This is all the more important that stances (and objectives) can change over time. It is not difficult to wonder if the Ukrainian population, once submitted to the type of structural reforms promoted by the IMF, including the end of subsidies to energy prices, as has already started to happen, would remain as pro-European as part of them seem to be currently (IMF Announces Staff Level Agreement with Ukraine on US$14-18 Billion Stand-By Arrangement, Press Release No. 14/131, March 27, 2014 and related press conference Ukraine agrees to 50% gas price hike amid IMF talks, BBC News, 26 March 2014).

Congress of Ukrainian Nationalistsfar right, extreme right, right wing, Ukraine, actors, analysisConsidering the importance of extreme right-wing political parties in Ukraine, with time, we might start facing a completely new situation that we must envision as part of any foresight and warning effort (e.g. David Stern, “Ukraine crisis: Kiev takes on far right“, BBC News, 1 April 2014; Keith Darden and Lucan Way, “Who are the protesters in Ukraine?“, Washington Post, February 12, 2014; Eugen Theise, Ukrainians veer toward right-wing nationalism, DW, 12 Dec 2012; Tadeusz A Olszański, “Svoboda Party – The New Phenomenon on the Ukrainian Right-Wing Scene”, 2011, OSW).

Thus, it is better to use for actors labels that are as neutral as possible, then to depict the relationship and stance towards a specific concern (in our example Russia) through a string of variables, while also reintroducing any other concerns those actors may have through other strings of variables. As analysts aiming at delivering the best possible SF&W analysis, what must guide us here is the actor or group of people, its beliefs and aims (see Methodology to Analyze Future Security Threats (2): a Game of Chess). It is not what one would wish them to be and even less what we think others want us to say and thus what we dare to say (the famous “speak truth to power”).

Complex elements: actors or variables?

Coming back to our initial mapping, we then have two “things” that are complex and coloured in turquoise: “Western Ukraine” and “Eastern Ukraine”. Are they actors or variables?

They could be seen as geographical locations, and thus be variables (the values would be Yes/True or No/False for each of them).

However, these names are in fact shortcuts for a whole sets of assumptions about what could happen in Ukraine (partition?), about what Russia could do (invade Ukraine? as lately strongly suggested by NATO, e.g. Michael Gordon, “NATO Commander Says He Sees Potent Threat From Russia, The NYT, April 2, 2014), about history, etc. (see Asya Pereltsvaig, “The Tale of Two Ukraines…” Geocurrents, 9 March 2014).

These names tend to treat “Western Ukraine” and “Eastern Ukraine” as “quasi-actors”. In a foresight and warning analysis, these “quasi-actors” should be unpacked, i.e. detailed into further variables to explicit what is really meant by those labels.

Map UkraineFor example, if we take the case of “Eastern Ukraine”, we could either replace it with “likelihood that Eastern Ukraine follows on Crimea and acts to obtain re-attachment to Russia”. Note that the use of the word “re-attachment” (that I chose purposefully for the sake of example) may lead to controversy according to the point of view of the actor (and participants/analysts). Notably, nationalist ideologies tend to posit an essentialist vision of the past, according to which a “nation” would have always existed – a thesis supported also by primordialist scholars such as Clifford Geertz (1973, 1993 ed.). This vision is also mobilising, hence its importance (Levinger and Lytle, 2001). However many others, from Anthony Smith (1986, [1999]) to Benedict  Anderson (1991) – and this is also our position here – understand a “nation” as a historical construct, which does not in any way diminishes its importance or existence. 

It would thus be important to factor in, as much as possible, these differing points of view (they are both necessary to really understand what is happening), within the mapping of the Ukrainian crisis as nationalism is one of its important elements, and to be ready for heated discussions in the framework of a workshop. Sometimes, the very efforts analysts may make at objectivity are felt as an aggression.

To properly consider all the complexity of those two variables, we could also, and this solution is better as we shall see with the next post, change the variable “Eastern Ukraine” for a string of variables such as “part of the Russian speaking population of Ukraine leaving in the southern and eastern oblasts (SEO) [Ukrainian administrative divisions]” (eventually detailing per oblast), “class structure of the southern and eastern oblasts”, “inequality level of the SEO”, “trade flows per country for each oblast”, “level of remittance from Russia for each oblast”, “representativity of each major party in each oblast”, etc. Equivalent changes should of course be made for “Western Ukraine”.

Here again, our aim is to be able to describe as objectively as possible the situation and its dynamics on the ground, which will then allow us envisioning the whole range of possible scenarios. As already mentioned, introducing as much objectivity as possible reopens a range of possibles thus allows for finding alternative smart strategies and policy options.


Featured image:  Line of internal troop solldiers holding protective positions. Signs say- Stop Barrocades! Stop Crackdown!. Clashes in Ukraine, Kyiv. Events of February 18, 2014-2 – By Mstyslav Chernov (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The pictures of Kiev, including the featured image were made by Ukrainian photographer Mstyslav Chernov – Check his gallery on Wikimedia Commons and his own website for more photographs.


Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, London: Fontana Press, 1973, 1993 ed.

Matthew Levinger and Paula Franklin Lytle, “Myth And Mobilisation: The Triadic Structure Of Nationalist Rhetoric,” in Nations and Nationalism, vol. 7. Number 2, 2001, pp.175-194.

Anthony Smith, The Ethnic Origin of Nations, Oxford: Blackwell, 1986, [1999].

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London: Verso, 1991.

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