Ukraine Needs Nonviolent Resistance to Beat Russia

Ukraine protest

The Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, the continued destabilization of southern and eastern parts of Ukraine by separatists, and the Russian special operation forces and the approximately 40,000 Russian “peacekeepers” poised on the Russian-Ukrainian border raise the question of what, if anything, Ukrainians can do to effectively resist and defend themselves and their territory. The logic of strategic nonviolent resistance and the past examples of nonviolent defense against occupiers offer useful lessons for Ukrainians. Russia is already using instrumentally the dynamics of people power against Ukraine, but if Ukraine plays its cards right and eschews violent responses that play into Russia’s hand, it should be able to win this game.

The contest in eastern Ukraine is not a traditional war – at least not as long as the Russian conventional forces remain on the other side of the border.  Rather, what is happening in Ukraine amounts to camouflaged warfare led by Russian special operations troops together with some local separatist groups and civilian volunteers. They capture regional government buildings, install “people’s mayors,” take over local media, declare autonomous republics and call for local referenda to decide the status of the regions. Their control over towns and cities in eastern Ukraine has been marked by targeted kidnappings and killings of activists and pro-Ukrainian officials.

To counter separatists and Russian operatives, the Ukrainian government launched an “anti-terrorist operation” with infantry, armor, and its own special forces. Some small progress apparently resulted, but then the unrest spread to the south where more than 40 people were killed in Odessa. The tragedy immediately fed the Russian regime’s anti-Ukrainian rhetoric, fueled separatism helped by the Russian infiltrators and deepened the rift between Ukrainians and the pro-Russian population in the country.

Kyiv is forgetting that ultimately, the success of the Russian-inspired camouflaged war in Ukraine – like any insurgency in the past – depends on the popular support or acquiescence of the local population, or at a minimum its silence and non-engagement. In that sense, the struggle for eastern Ukraine is a political undertaking even more than a military one.

If the struggle in eastern Ukraine is reliant on the behavior and attitudes of the locals, then the “anti-terrorist operation” cannot be an effective tool no matter how competent and professional its implementation is (an unlikely eventuality anyway). Like guerrilla warfare itself, any anti-guerrilla operation is likely to fail without extensive political mobilization in the guerilla-controlled territory. In his 1969 seminal volume on civilian national defense, Adam Roberts, a long-time student of civil resistance, quotes Colonel C.M. Woodhouse, the World War II scholar-soldier, as saying that “the art of defeating guerrillas is the art of turning the populace against them.” In fact, neither guerrilla war nor anti-guerrilla actions have ever been successful where the populace remained hostile towards them.

The implication is clear: the Ukrainian government needs to put more effort into political organizing. The essence of Ukraine’s strategy must be to develop and lead an effective political struggle aiming to win popular legitimacy and representation, mobilize local populations and impose tangible political, economic and organizational costs on the opponent.

A careful reading of history shows the merit of this idea. To begin with, large-scale nonviolent resistance is likely to throw a violent adversary off-balance. When Basil Liddell Hart interviewed the German generals after World War II, they spoke of the military challenges of occupying Denmark, Holland and Norway, and their inability to fight nonviolent actions.  As Liddell Hart put it:

[Nazi Germans] were experts in violence, and had been trained to deal with opponents who used that method. But other forms of resistance baffled them- and all the more in proportion as the methods were subtle and concealed. It was a relief to them when resistance became violent, and when non-violent forms were mixed with guerrilla action, thus making it easier to combine drastic suppressive action against both at the same time.

Indeed, in supposedly violence-dominated struggles ranging from the Spanish insurrection against Napoleon to the Chinese revolution against Japan to the North Vietnamese guerrilla war against the United States and South Vietnamese allies, “military tools were subordinated to a broader political struggle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of ordinary people.” Over more than a century, civil resistance movements proved to be more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts in challenging violent state adversaries. They did that because they won popular legitimacy and mobilized millions. The fact that the activists were unarmed and used nonviolent tactics such as protests, strikes, civil disobedience and non-cooperation helped them reach out to undecided or fearful majorities and win over segments of the population that constituted important pillars of support for the movement’s adversary. Such actions put military forces in a quandary: violence against unarmed protesters backfires, increasing domestic and international sympathy for the movement and mobilizing greater numbers of people. In the end, the adversary’s capacity to govern, control and repress can be effectively dissolved without violence.

The power of nonviolence should be clear to Kyiv because, in part, this is what Moscow is doing in Ukraine.  Russian president Vladimir Putin has incorporated elements of nonviolent dynamics into his Ukraine strategy, and he has not been shy in talking about it. During his famous interview on March 4, 2014, Putin alluded to the nonviolent tactical repertoire that Russia prepared to deploy in Ukraine.

Listen carefully. I want you to understand me clearly: if we make that decision [to send Russian army to Ukraine], it will only be to protect Ukrainian citizens. And let’s see those [Ukrainian] troops try to shoot their own people, with us behind them – not in the front, but behind. Let them just try to shoot at women and children! I would like to see those who would give that order in Ukraine” (Emphasis added.)

The Russian military employed this tactic in Crimea when pro-Russian older women marched on the Ukrainian military base, behind them the armed “little green men.” It worked; the Ukrainian troops refrained from violence.  Nowadays, in eastern and southern Ukraine, Russia is using “grassroots” civilian groups that would either be at the forefront of the unarmed assault on the government buildings or providing human shields for the armed pro-Russian militia already in control of the government institutions. Nonviolent actions deployed by Russia are, however, purely tactical, intended to support the armed groups in a specific operation. In that sense, nonviolent tools are a short-cut to help wage a violent campaign.

This largely explains why the local separatists and their Russian supporters are anywhere near in effective control of the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine. Militias organized local referenda in Donetsk and Lugansk regions to cloak their armed takeover with a semblance of popular support. Improbable turnout with a close unanimity in favor of the separatist option clearly skewed true preferences of millions of voters. Meanwhile, in Crimea a creative defiance remains visible and is likely to grow.

Admittedly, it feels counterintuitive to suggest that nonviolence can defeat violence.  Not surprisingly, then, calls for the introduction of martial law in the hot spots and more aggressive anti-terrorist measures to deal with the separatists are growing in Ukraine. Meanwhile, a leading Ukrainian presidential contender, Petro Poroshenko, said in his latest interview on April 28 with the German tabloid Bild that unless Russia changes its behavior Ukrainians must respond to separatists with “the language these people understand [and] this is not the language of diplomacy (…).”

If the adversary is steeped in the language of arms, why challenge it with the very instrument it is so proficient in using? Would it not be strategically wiser to engage the adversary on grounds not of his own choosing?

It is also important for Kyiv to remember that violent resistance comes with hidden costs.  It attracts not only genuine patriots but also criminals and war profiteers. It also instills a culture of violence that persists long after the struggle ends and creates a political instability that can be exploited by outside actors. Consider how much propaganda ammunition the presence of a violent minority in the protests against former president Yanukovych gave to the separatists and Russia. Why? It gave the Russian propaganda a convenient bogeyman of the Ukrainian “fascists” who previously fought Soviet liberators during and after World War II, and now are bent on killing ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine.

Of course, no struggle is without risks. Nonviolent activists have been killed before and will be killed in the future. However, the lessons of civil resistance are that many civilian lives are saved if the struggle is waged nonviolently in contrast to when the armed adversary is challenged with arms. Moreover, Ukraine will have to fight a protracted political struggle until the other side becomes exhausted.  However, history suggests that there is every prospect for success.


Dr. Maciej Bartkowski is an adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, where he teaches strategic nonviolent resistance, and is editor of Recovering Nonviolent History: Civil Resistance in Liberation Struggles, published in 2013. Dr. Bartkowski can be followed on Twitter @macbartkowski, and on


Photo credit: Игорь Титаренко (adapted by War on the Rocks)