How Ukraine Ousted an Autocrat: The Logic of Civil Resistance

Kyiv's Maidan movement presses its demands last winter for rule of law, an end to official corruption, and closer relations with the European Union. (CC License)

The Maidan popular uprising of 2014 lasted 93 days between November 21, 2013 and February 21, 2014.  It was during 88 days of the revolution that protesters engaged in nonviolent mobilization and various forms of nonviolent action. Despite five days of spectacular violence between demonstrators and regime security forces, the logic of nonviolent conflict helps explain why Yanukovych was forced to flee. However, the success of this phase of people power was quickly followed by new external aggression that is now testing the limits of the Ukrainian nonviolent resistance.

Logic of Nonviolent Conflict during the Maidan Revolution

Violence against unarmed protesters and repressive measures deployed by the regime usually backfired. Instead of subduing a nascent resistance before it could become a socially diverse and representative movement of hundreds of thousands, the repression propelled civic mobilization, increased domestic sympathy and popular support for it, stimulated defections from the regime’s pillars of support and raised international condemnations, including political and economic sanctions. Eventually, the dynamics of nonviolent resistance left the autocracy without the means to wield its power, despite a clear willingness to do so.   

Students participating in a peaceful sit-in were brutally assaulted by police on November 30, 2013. This event, captured on video and spread on social media, quickly led to a popular response that scholars have called backfire or the paradox of repression. On December 1, at least 300,000 people came to Maidan (Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Independence Square) to protest. Demonstrators seized Kyiv City Hall and the Trade Union House. An estimated 40,000 people demonstrated in the western city of Lviv. A week later, during the March of the Million, approximately 800,000 came out on the streets of the Ukrainian capital. By then, tents were erected on Maidan, turning the protest into a permanent encampment. The opposition’s initial demand to sign an association agreement with the EU quickly expanded to resistance against the venally corrupt regime. The backlash also prompted defections among Yanukovych’s allies in the first weeks of the revolution, including from his Party of Regions, members of his administration, city mayors, diplomats, and members of the elite Berkut police, particularly those from western Ukraine.

Regimes learn from their mistakes. Yanukovych’s government changed tactics from open, indiscriminate repression to covert, targeted intimidation, kidnappings and beatings of journalists and activists. It began using titushki (paid thugs) bused into the capital mainly from southeastern Ukraine to lead violent assaults. In response, the activists diversified their tactics. They began an economic boycott of companies, services and products known to be associated with people from the ruling party. Activists built and expanded citizens’ media, including independent, live coverage of the movement. They launched “Automaidan” – a campaign of automotive protest convoys that, at its peak, consisted of more than 1,000 cars. These convoys helped gather information about the deployment of security forces and titushki. The automaidan activists also disrupted the police by blocking the entrances of the garrisons where they were stationed, and they brought food, water, tents and wood to Maidan, along with captured titushki. Residents set up neighborhood watch groups to neutralize and contain the thugs. In Kyiv alone, there were 11 neighborhood watch groups — their size varied from tens, hundreds to thousands — that opened their Facebook pages to coordinate protection activities.

Faced with an expanding and increasingly sophisticated mobilization against his rule, Yanukovych again resorted to repression. On January 16, 2014, parliament, which was under his party’s control, pushed through anti-protest legislation that closely resembled the Russian anti-protest laws. Incensed by what they saw as the creeping “Putinization” of Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians again took to the streets, convinced that the resistance was now truly a struggle against dictatorship — not just a corrupt regime.

This time, however, nonviolent discipline broke down for the first time among the protesters. In the ensuing two-day battle between Berkut police and hundreds of protesters, three demonstrators were killed. By the end of January, the protests spread to a number of cities in eastern and southern Ukraine. Radicalized, unarmed activists changed the tactics from protests and sit-ins to more coercive, but still nonviolent, seizure of government buildings in the regions.

Yanukovych cancelled the anti-protest laws, dismissed his prime minister and entered into an uneasy truce with the opposition. The truce ended on February 18, 2014 when the police attacked demonstrators protesting in front of parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. After two days of street battles in Kyiv, close to a hundred demonstrators and more than a dozen policemen had been killed. Yanukovych fled Kyiv the next day.

Why Did Yanukovych Flee?

The downfall of Yanukovych and his regime was not inevitable. In fact, some scholars were outright skeptical about the likelihood of opposition victory. Just days before Yanukovych escaped, his regime looked strong, deploying a disciplined and loyal force of several thousand Berkut police to the capital.

Some might contend that Yanukovych was forced out by the violent, radical flank of the movement, which burned tires, threw Molotov cocktails and wielded improvised weaponry. (These spectacular actions were captured by the mainstream media and beamed to a worldwide audience.)  During the Orange Revolution a decade earlier that movement forced the regime to accept its demands in less than a month, and the authorities refrained from using violence against peaceful protesters.

This time after around, almost two months into the revolution, Yanukovych’s regime offered no concessions. Worse, its Berkut special forces and the violent titushki gangs allied to them continued targeted attacks, kidnapping and torture of activists. For a minority of radical protesters within the Maidan this was proof that peaceful resistance was not effective and violent defense in response to the regime’s violence was required.

Although short-lived, the existence of a radical flank in Ukraine proved problematic in many respects. It dampened participation, particularly among women who for the most part stayed away from violence. It also gave the Russian government a valuable propaganda tool to brand the Maidan Revolution as a violent coup led by Ukrainian “extremists” and “fascists.” This, in turn, provided Vladimir Putin with further pretext to invade and annex Crimea and helped rally domestic support in Russia for possible military intervention in Ukraine to “protect” Russian speakers in the country.

Yanukovych’s willingness to continue the violent crackdown on the Maidan was by no means hindered by the violence of a small group of protesters. The problem for Yanukovych was that his readiness to use violence was disproportionate to his actual capacity to deploy it. That capacity was effectively undermined by the divisions in his own ruling party and, most importantly, by ensuing army defections.

As it was the case during the Orange Revolution an army that refused to shoot at unarmed protesters played a crucial role in the fall of the regime. During the weeks leading up to Yanukovych’s departure, he desperately tried to shore up the loyalty of his armed forces. He reportedly asked Ukrainian army officers to sign loyalty pledges. Officers who refused were fired or reassigned. In order to reduce the possibility of defections among the security forces deployed against protesters in Kyiv, Berkut members were subject to special ideological and psychological training that underscored their inviolability, absolved them of any responsibility except the duty to obey orders and persuaded them to see the demonstrators as sub-human enemies (e.g., the Jewish fifth column) that had to be be eliminated. Before the clashes, Berkut units were kept for hours in buses where their members could hardly sleep, eat, wash or relieve themselves. This physical discomfort was intended to increase the police’s anger against the protesters who, Berkut officers told their ranks, were the cause of their ordeal. Also, the salaries of the Berkut were raised to a level estimated to be four to five times those of regular police.

In the second half of January, Yanukovych security chiefs planned for a massive repression of protest under two operations code-named “Boomerang” and “Wave”. These called for a total security force of about 22,000 members. To assemble them, Yanukovych’s regime tried to integrate a number of army brigades into the internal security forces. That meant changing their mission from protecting Ukraine’s people against external threats to repressing them. The army strongly resisted, rendering the plan untenable.

In February, Yanukovych ordered the deployment of the army to Kyiv. When the generals refused, he demoted and reassigned the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on February 19, replacing him with an admiral considered more loyal. A day later, the new head ordered an immediate deployment to Kyiv of four elite army brigades stationed in southeastern Ukraine. On the same day, the deputy head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff resigned in protest against the regime’s attempt to involve the army in the domestic conflict. 

Eventually, one brigade of 500 troops left  Dnipropetrovsk by train on the day the orders came. However, they were stopped in their tracks, literally, by a group of nonviolent activists lying across the railway ties. The activists later blocked roads against another attempt to transport the troops by bus. Brigades at other locations remained in their barracks.

The political defections accelerated on February 20 with the departures from Kyiv of top Yanukovych aides, including the despised minister of interior, Vitaliy Zakharchenko, and key oligarchs allied with the regime. An estimated eighty chartered flights departed from Kyiv’s Zhuliany airport that day, compared to a daily average of 15-30 departures. Not even during the EURO 2012 Soccer Championships had there been so many departures in a single day, reported flight dispatchers.

By late that evening, defections from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions reversed the position of the Verkhovna Rada, which passed laws that ordered the withdrawal of all interior security forces from Kyiv. The army units that the newly appointed military chief had ordered to the capital now had a legal pretext to stay in their barracks.

Yanukovych sensed he was gradually losing control over his security and political allies well before his departure. The cameras in his opulent residence in Mezhyhirya, not far from Kyiv, recorded Yanukovych and his aides packing valuables and carts of documents beginning on February 19 — two days prior to his flight from Kyiv.

Meanwhile, the international community failed to notice the crumbling of the Yanukovych regime amid its most ferocious onslaught on the Maidan. On February 21, when most of Yanukovych’s allies already had left the previous day and the president had packed his belongings in Mezhyhirya, three EU foreign ministers were negotiating with him. On that day, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski was caught on video telling one of the opposition leaders, “If you don’t support this [deal], you will have martial law, the army; you’ll all be dead.” By that time, however, Yanukovych had no one to give orders to and no power to plan anything but his own escape.

The agreement pushed by the EU ministers came weeks too late, and was thus unnecessary and counterproductive. After it was signed on February 21, it was quickly disowned by the people on Maidan, enraged by mass killings. It was also used by Russia, Yanukovych and the former regime’s supporters to accuse the new authorities in Kyiv of staging a coup and usurping power by failing to implement a power-sharing arrangement that they had agreed to earlier.

The Yanukovych regime, like any other government, needed the consent of the population to stay in power. This consent became increasingly tenuous as the government increased its use of repression. Faced with massive popular dissent, the disobedience of his army and defections among his political allies, Yanukovych saw his downfall sealed. The limited use of violence by the opposition, although its importance is amplified by many observers, was unnecessary to bring down an autocrat and did more harm than good. The propulsive nature of civil resistance once again effectively undermined a seemingly powerful regime, as more than 100 other nonviolent campaigns in the past century have proved the prowess of oppressed people against dictatorships.

Dr. Maciej Bartkowski is senior director for education and research at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and an adjunct professor at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Johns Hopkins University. He is the editor of Recovering Nonviolent History. Civil Resistance in Liberation Struggles, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013.

Dr. Maria J. Stephan is senior policy fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. She is co-author, with Erica Chenoweth, of Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Columbia University Press, 2011.

We would like to thank Elena Volkava for her helpful research assistantship.

Related Experts: Maria J. Stephan

Image: Kyiv's Maidan movement presses its demands last winter for rule of law, an end to official corruption, and closer relations with the European Union. (CC License)