Ukraine and the Logic of Civil Resistance: Confronting Russian-Fueled Insurgency

Ukrainians hold flags and signs bearing their latest concerns as they gather in a veche (people’s assembly) at Maidan Nezalezhnosti on Sunday, June 1. The meeting was the latest in a long public debate over the future of the Maidan movement that toppled the corrupt presidency of Viktor Yanukovych in February. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

The conflict in Ukraine is not a classic foreign conquest, though the illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea could trigger an anti-occupation struggle, particularly within the Tatar community and others in Crimea who remain loyal to Ukraine and are increasingly repressed and dissatisfied with the deteriorating economy. In eastern Ukraine, a separatist campaign supported by Russia’s government includes an armed insurgency by irregular militias in the Donbas region (Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts). This campaign seeks to rally support of pro-Russian civilians in that region.

So far, two approaches have dominated the attempts to end the violent separatism and deter wider Russian aggression. These are a military campaign and diplomacy backed by economic sanctions. The Ukrainian government, largely supported and pressured by the Ukrainian public, has sent troops to conduct “anti-terrorist” operations against the Russian-led militias. This operation has been reinvigorated by newly elected President Petro Poroshenko, who promised military successes within hours, not months. Meanwhile, Western countries have sought a diplomatic solution through either bilateral talks with Russia or multilateral organizations (mainly the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). Limited economic sanctions by those governments back up these diplomatic efforts. 

However, the literature on civil resistance and nonviolent conflict offers a conceivable alternative to the dominant approaches. It forces us to refocus our attention on the nature, dynamics and effectiveness of civic mobilization and unarmed struggle to fend off minority violence and to face foreign aggression and occupation.

Which Form of Resistance is More Likely to Succeed?

Even with the prospect of a Ukrainian government strengthened by last week’s popular election of a new president, the country will remain vulnerable to attacks by the Moscow-backed militias. The May 22 attack by separatist fighters on checkpoints of the Ukrainian army south of Donetsk city, which killed at least 16 Ukrainian troops, underscores the military proficiency of the Russian-backed forces. The creation in recent weeks of Ukrainian volunteer brigades in several provinces, as well as a call by unidentified Ukrainian “black men” for a popular armed struggle against the separatists, suggests that the armed conflict could grow more complex.

This does not need to happen. There is an alternative that proved more successful than arms. Historically, nonviolent civil resistance against violent state opponents has been twice as effective as armed struggle in 323 conflicts from 1900 to 2006. And 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. Far more people in any society can actively participate in civil resistance, compared to violent struggle, which helps explain the former’s strategic superiority. 

Civil resistance is likely to keep the violent adversary off-balance. When the British military historian Captain Basil Liddell Hart interrogated German generals after the Second World War about their military occupation of Denmark, Holland, Norway, and other states, they all talked about their conundrum of fighting nonviolent resistance. Hart observed: 

[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.

While Ukrainians have every right to defend themselves against external threat, studies of past national liberation struggles show that civil resistance often was abandoned in favor of armed struggle due to a lack of popular appreciation of what nonviolent organizing had achieved, and could further achieve, if that type of resistance continued. Once armed struggle overshadowed civil resistance, the cost in lives, destroyed property and national infrastructure was staggering, particularly in contrast to costs associated with civil resistance. The example of Syria offers a particularly useful, though painful, lesson. When Syrians shifted their non-violent resistance to an armed struggle by fall 2011, the average death toll among them skyrocketed to more than three times the initial rate of the unarmed uprising. It then went on to grow exponentially. 

Insurgency and counter-insurgency are political struggles

The Russian-fueled insurgency in southeastern Ukraine is an urban guerrilla campaign by militias that combine Russian special operations or intelligence officers, and fighters from both Russia (including Don Cossacks and the Chechen Kadyrovtsy) and Ukraine (i.e. former Berkut riot police), supported by local, civilian volunteers.

Eventually, the success of such warfare, like any guerrilla insurgency, depends on the popular support or acquiescence of the local population. In that sense, the conflict in eastern Ukraine is a political struggle more than a military one. In it, the Russian propaganda campaign plays a crucial role. Like guerrilla warfare, any anti-guerrilla operation is likely to fail without political mobilization of the local residents. According to Colonel C.M. Woodhouse, the World War II scholar-soldier cited by Adam Roberts in his 1969 seminal volume on civilian national defense, “(…) the art of defeating guerrillas is the art of turning the populace against them.” With this in mind, the anti-terrorist operations in eastern Ukraine should aim to win the “hearts and minds” of residents there who might not support the separatists’ goals, but also do not trust the government in Kyiv. However, those military operations are not designed for that political task and likely will fail to achieve it.

The scholarship on civil resistance suggests that a successful strategy in the current conflict would use a repertoire of nonmilitary – political, social, economic ­– tools to win popular legitimacy and representation, to mobilize local populations and to impose tangible political, economic and organizational costs on the opponent.

Interestingly enough, the strategic advantage of nonviolent action did not escape the attention of the Russian regime. In his public interview on March 4, 2014, President Vladimir Putin alluded that Russia was prepared to use nonviolent tactics as part of a conventional invasion into Ukraine. In response to a journalist’s question, Putin said:

Listen carefully. I want you to understand me clearly; if we make that decision [to send the 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.” (Authors’ emphasis)

The Russian military successfully used this tactic in Crimea where older, pro-Russian women (babushki) joined other local residents to lead the protests to the Ukrainian military bases, with armed fighters behind them. As predicted by Putin, the Ukrainian soldiers did not dare to shoot. However, nonviolent actions deployed by Russia and pro-Russian separatists are merely tactical, used to provide a support for the deployment of armed groups and to lead a military campaign. This is different from a strategic use of civil resistance and mass non-cooperation to dissolve the armed separatists’ sources of power.    

Past nonviolent struggles against foreign aggression

The conflict in Ukraine will likely be protracted. Historically, Danes, Czechs and Slovaks have shown the extent to which political resistance — fought over years or decades — can impose significant costs on the occupiers while strengthening national cohesion and solidarity. After the German invasion in April 1940, Danes engaged in impressive nonviolent resistance that gave the Germans nothing they expected (quietism) or wanted (war and violent challenge).

Similarly, in the Czechs’ and Slovaks’ struggle against the 1968 Soviet invasion, in which the existential stakes for Czechoslovakia were high, the population chose to resist without arms. They adhered to “Ten Commandments” of nonviolent resistance, which were posted on city streets. (In one photo from the invasion, some commandments are seen written on the white stripes of a pedestrian crosswalk in Prague). 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, 6. Don’t give, 7. Can’t do, 8. Don’t sell, 9. Don’t show, 10. Do nothing. The choice of civil resistance rather than a protracted guerrilla war saved probably hundreds of thousands of lives. And, while it took two decades, this approach paved the way for Czechs and Slovaks to shake off communism without a shot. This nonviolent change, in turn, helped the two nations choose a peaceful divorce that otherwise might have resembled the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. Furthermore, protracted peaceful resistance has created vibrant civil societies crucial for building and defending democracy both in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

For Danes, Czechs and Slovaks to engage in nonviolent resistance, it took a significant degree of political education through underground press, radio and communication with their friends, neighbors, and colleagues at work. The extent to which such political education is lacking in Ukraine is shown in a humorous way by a journalist’s hoax. In the provincial capital of Cherkasy, in central Ukraine, a reporter dressed in a green, camouflage uniform characteristic of the separatist guerrillas and carried a fake (but authentic-looking) AK-47 assault rifle. Speaking Russian, he drove into town, asking residents directions to the provincial government building, proposing to help seize it in the separatist cause. In a video he shot of the stunt, he moved around the town without difficulty, helped by naïve locals who, in principle, oppose armed groups and separatism.

In growing numbers, ordinary Ukrainians are coming together to protect their towns and through political organizing rather than use of arms. 

In the southern city of Mykolaiv, supporters and opponents of the pro-European Maidan movement that ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych in February met in a round-table discussion and agreed to create peacekeeping mechanisms such as jointly operated checkpoints and street patrols. These operations sought to prevent weapons and armed people from entering the town “regardless of what flags they are under.” They set up a citywide information center to respond swiftly to rumors or disinformation that spread among residents. Encouraged residents, a day prior to the presidential elections, on May 24, led a large pro-Ukraine march. Many wore traditional Ukrainian embroidered clothes and unfurled a huge Ukrainian flag on the city square. These developments resembled, in many respects, nonviolent organizing by the residents of Tuzla during the civil war in Bosnia and those of peace communities in Colombia and the Philippines, which defended themselves against violent non-state actors without resorting to violence.

The town of Svatovo, in Lugansk province, where separatist militias are active, got all the municipality’s major stakeholders (local council members, civil society representatives and business community) to work together to prevent separatists from infiltrating. In Mariupol, a city in Donetsk province, what the anti-terrorist operation could not achieve – taking control of the city from the armed separatists, — was accomplished  by local industrial workers without firing a shot. Thousands of local volunteers joined the citizens’ patrols in Mariupol to ensure security of the town.

In Kramatorsk in Donetsk, controlled by militia, two Ukrainian women recorded themselves standing up to armed pro-Russian separatists and chasing away a van with rebels. The video of the incident went viral and nonviolent “warrior princesses” became instantly national resistance icons.

As the United States and European governments work to strengthen Ukraine against Russian aggression, they should give serious attention to helping the government in Kyiv build a strategy of civilian defense, whereby Ukrainian civilians are organized, mobilized, and prepared to engage in complete non-cooperation with the pro-Russian militia and the Russian forces. Providing targeted grants for civic mobilization activities, supporting media programs (notably in the Russian language) that cleverly challenge Russian propaganda, pressing Ukrainian oligarchs to open their soccer stadiums for unity matches and solidarity concerts, working with the business community to create strike funds for workers, and strongly backing pro-Ukrainian labor organizing are just a few possible steps. US policymakers often respond to challenges such as that in Ukraine by advocating diplomatic steps, coercion (through sanctions) or armed solutions, while ignoring or playing down the alternative of political grassroots organizing and resistance. The scholarship on civil resistance and nonviolent national self-defense offers useful policy lessons as the West confronts violations of the borders and sovereignty of a European state.

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.

Related Experts: Maria J. Stephan

Image: Ukrainians hold flags and signs bearing their latest concerns as they gather in a veche (people’s assembly) at Maidan Nezalezhnosti on Sunday, June 1. The meeting was the latest in a long public debate over the future of the Maidan movement that toppled the corrupt presidency of Viktor Yanukovych in February. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko