To Liberate Ukraine, Get the Maidan Back in the Fight

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians gather on Kyiv's Maidan Nezalezhnosti in December, part of the three-month protest that brought down the Kremlin-dependent government of President Viktor Yanukovych. (CC License)Let’s consider for a moment what has worked, and not worked, in Ukraine’s fight for freedom from Russian domination. What worked was the Maidan – the massive, determined and (almost completely) non-violent protest movement that overthrew the corrupt, Kremlin-dependent President Viktor Yanukovych. What has not worked has been the Ukrainian government’s patchwork counter-insurgency offensive against Kremlin-backed separatist militias in southeast Ukraine.

In the current battle for the southeast, Ukraine’s mix of government forces – army units, national guardsmen and provincial-level militias raised by local business magnates – has proven barely able to establish security perimeters around the towns and cities held by Russian-backed secessionist militias.

If any police-and-military machine exists in the world with the specialized training, weapons, intelligence and communications to wade into Ukraine’s southeastern provinces and surgically excise the disparate separatist militias without hurting local civilians, it doesn’t exist in Ukraine – and it won’t be built there anytime soon.

That’s a big reason why a number of policy specialists are now arguing that Ukraine, with the help of its international supporters, should lead its fight against Russian subversion in its Donbas (Donetsk Basin) region with the Maidan. More precisely, with non-violent civil resistance.

As policymakers in Kyiv, Washington, and European capitals focus on economic sanctions against Russia or the proper NATO posture in Eastern Europe, they have given virtually no attention to the seemingly fuzzier notion of encouraging civil resistance movements against Russian forces in Donbas or Crimea. That’s a mistake, according to Maciej Bartkowski and Maria Stephan, two policy specialists writing this week on the Atlantic Council’s website.

Arguably, Ukraine and its friends should be working hard to build a civil non-cooperation movement for these reasons:

  • It works, faster and better than guerrilla warfare. “Historically, nonviolent civil resistance against violent state opponents has been twice as effective as armed struggle in 323 conflicts from 1900 to 2006,” according to research published in 2011 by Stephan, an Atlantic Council non-resident fellow, and co-author Erica Chenoweth. Even better, “civil resistance – which relies on nonviolent tactics including consumer boycotts, worker strikes, political satire, protests, and parallel institutions – is faster, needing on average two and a half years to run its course, compared to nine years for violent resistance.”
  • The Ukrainians are good at it. “The Ukrainians have a great history of using non-violent resistance – in the Orange Revolution in 2004 and this year on the Maidan,” Bartkowski said in an interview. As did the United States during its Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, “Ukraine has created a certain culture of non-violent struggle that it now can build upon,” he said.
  • It can happen even outside of Kyiv, even in the southeast. As a matter of survival, local communities near the battle in Donbas have autonomously taken steps toward non-violent resistance. The southern city of Mykolayiv gathered its local leaders of the Maidan movement and the anti-Maidan opposition to organize a set of joint street patrols and checkpoints to keep armed groups out of town. And they set up a local information center to check out and quash the panicked rumors and disinformation that often have helped de-stabilize communities facing the threat of militia violence.
  • It will leave Ukraine stronger and healthier when it’s over. A non-violent resistance campaign hews closer to the rule of law and the accountability of the powerful that Ukrainians have demanded (in protest marches, opinion surveys and elections). Civil resistance will build civil society in regions that long have been subject to governance by secretive combines of state authorities, corrupt businesses and organized crime. A guerrilla war will build guerrilla forces that, after any conflict, will have to be disarmed and disbanded.

How to do it? For starters, a Russian-language TV station …

A civil resistance fight for the future of Donbas would limit, but not eliminate, a role for the security forces. The Kyiv government and its international supporters should build as quickly as possible the Ukrainian military’s ability to seal the country’s border. “Stopping the infiltration of fighters and weapons from Russia” is a critical first step, Bartkowski said, and the US and European governments could help with training and surveillance technology, including unarmed drones.

“Once the border is better controlled, the military resources should focus on isolating the cities that are dominated by the separatists, controlling the roads and establishing a cordon sanitaire to protect adjacent areas from violence, Bartkowski said.

Within the areas dominated by the mix of Russian-backed militias – local separatist fighters, Russian military officers, Russian Cossack police auxiliaries, and Chechen and Ossetian guerrillas – “Ukraine should encourage a campaign of civil resistance, starting with low-risk tactics,” Bartkowski said. The civil resistance campaign that helped oust Chilean dicator Augusto Pinochet began in the early 1980s with the low-risk tactic of cacerolazos, in which protesters banged spoons against casserole dishes in their homes to share the sound and their sense of common purpose against the regime.

A resistance model for Donbas might be the Czechoslovak non-cooperation with Soviet soldiers who occupied their country in 1968. “To any approach by a Soviet soldier, a citizen’s response was: (1) Don’t know; (2) Don’t care; (3) Don’t tell; (4) Don’t have; (5) Don’t know how to,” etc., Bartkowski and Stephan write.

A key starting point would be a Russian-language TV station broadcasting from transmitters in government-held territory, to “break the lack of information” for millions of people in Donbas, which receives only broadcasts by Kremlin-allied Russian channels, Bartkowski said.

The Maidan Needs a Mission

Finally, a huge reason and resource for building a civil-resistance strategy is this: Three months after overthrowing the corrupt Yanukovych administration, Maidan activists and their young, pro-democratic organizations are looking for ways to sustain their mission.

Thousands of Ukrainians gathered at the Maidan yesterday in a “people’s assembly” to discuss this very issue. Much of the Maidan’s new focus will be the monitoring of the incoming central government of President-elect Petro Poroshenko and the new Kyiv government of Mayor-elect Vitaliy Klitschko. But the Maidan remains a resource of civic energy and civil resistance that should be tapped, not ignored, in Ukraine’s fight to remain whole and free.

James Rupert is an editor at The Atlantic Council.

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Image: Tens of thousands of Ukrainians gather on Kyiv's Maidan Nezalezhnosti in December, part of the three-month protest that brought down the Kremlin-dependent government of President Viktor Yanukovych. (CC License)