Nonviolent resistance to the war in Ukraine: Exploring multiple perspectives

As of March 31, the war in Ukraine has taken the lives of more than 1200 Ukrainian civilians (112 of the children) and has produced multiple interrelated humanitarian crises, including more than 4.1 million refugees who have fled the country (the majority of them are women and children) and another 6.5 million whom have been internally displaced.    The international community has responded to the crisis by providing humanitarian relief, facilitating diplomatic efforts, and providing a continual flow of military aid.  Predictably, the war has led to increased military spending around the world, with Germany pledging 100 billion to increase its defense spending and President Biden requesting a $753 billion military budget for 2022 (“the 1.6% increase in military spending from last year is more than the $8.7 billion requested for the entire budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” – National Priorities Project).

Back in February, Daniel Hunter observed that “predictably, much of the Western press has focused on Ukrainian diplomatic or military resistance to Russia’s invasion, such as the arming of regular citizens to patrol and protect.”  The world has largely failed to consider alternatives to a militarized response, which is generally perceived to function as the only tool of defense, deterrence and security in the context of war.  Thankfully, research shows that nonviolent resistance can meet many of these same functions, and in many instances may be more effective.

As peace educators and peace researchers, it is imperative that we carefully consider a full range of responses to violence.  Gene Sharp, in his exploration of Civilian-Based Defense, argued that the same criteria should be used to evaluate the effectiveness of nonviolent struggle and military struggle for defense capacity: What is the degree of risk? What is risked?  What are the social and economic costs? Is the loss of life projected to be any greater or less from a militarized response compared to a nonviolent intervention?  What are the costs if it comes to an open clash?  What is the cost of failure?  What are the possible gains?  What are the ethical and moral implications?  What are the future repercussions of maintaining a militarized security posture?  

The Global Campaign for Peace Education has curated below a collection of perspectives and stories of nonviolent resistance in Ukraine.  We encourage all to consider the possibilities of nonviolent resistance critically, applying the criteria suggested above, and also devising your own.  If you have additional resources on nonviolent resistance in Ukraine, please share them in the comments section below.

(*Click here for additional coverage and analysis of the war in Ukraine.)

5 ways to support courageous nonviolent resistance in Ukraine

By Eli McCarthy

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Government and civil society can take immediate action to break the dynamic of violence and build a more sustainable just peace in Ukraine.

(Reposted from: Waging Nonviolence.  March 23, 2022)

The war in Ukraine is a human and ecological catastrophe. We have failed to create the social conditions for the prevention of large-scale violence. We have failed to escape the cycle of threats, blame and retribution that escalates hostility and distrust. We have failed to acknowledge the relevant root causes and responsibility for harm from key stakeholders. We have failed to engage in diplomacy that prioritizes the dignity and human needs of the key stakeholders, with a willingness to compromise, and a focus on saving lives. We have failed to adequately train people in nonviolent conflict, resistance and civilian-based defense. We cannot afford to make these mistakes again.

Yet, despite all these failures, there are still signs of hope. A variety of creative, courageous, nonviolent ways of resistance are being activated and could be scaled up by Ukrainians and others.

Ukrainians have been blocking convoys and tanks, and standing their ground even with warning shots fired in multiple towns. In Berdyansk and Kulykіvka people organized peace rallies and convinced the Russian military to get out. Hundreds protested the abduction of a mayor, and there have been protests in Kherson against becoming a breakaway state. Ukrainians have fraternized with Russian soldiers to lower their morale and stimulate defections. There’s been humanitarian assistance (with Orthodox priests stepping up as escorts) and caring for displaced persons by the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.

Russians have participated in numerous antiwar protests, and around 15,000 have been arrested. Journalists have interrupted and resigned from state TV. Nearly 100,000 Russians from a variety of sectors have signed petitions to end the war. Russians from all parts of society have spoken out against the war — from members of the military and connected to the foreign ministry to members of the Russian oil industry and billionaires, as well as nearly 300 Russian Orthodox clerics . Meanwhile, over 100 soldiers have refused to take part.

Forms of nonviolent resistance through external support include the outpouring of public statements by key political leaders, as well as reducing the flow of money to the aggressor —  via freezing bank accounts, reducing online media monetization, reducing trade, reducing use of Russian fossil fuels and blocking ships of Russian goods. Other forms include supporting the antiwar protesters in Russia, disrupting the technology systems of the aggressor and interrupting disinformation. Another critical form has been coalition building, activating key civil society leaders (including athletes, religious figures and those in the business community), and extensive humanitarian assistance along with caring for refugees.

There have been some moments where key stakeholders, including Russians, have been re-humanized by using labels and narratives that communicate complexity, potential transformation and common humanity. More could be done to help shift away from retributive justice and toward restorative justice, along with acknowledging responsibility for harm. There has been some sharing of educational material about nonviolent civilian-based defense and advocating our governments to resource and amplify nonviolent activism in Ukraine. Additionally, some religious leaders and others have amplified these stories of nonviolence, challenged the theological ideology supporting war, as well as challenged the role of racism and white supremacy in the conflict. Another critical practice some have offered is fasting or praying for Ukrainians as well as adversaries.

In the Washington Post, Harvard University professor Erica Chenoweth explained that research “suggests it’s also important not to underestimate how nonviolent resistance can delay or minimize killing, begin to shift the political landscape and deter future aggression.”

Below are five immediate action steps civil society, as well as Congress members and the White House, can take to move toward breaking the cycle of violence and ending the war.

1. The courageous and creative actions of nonviolent resistance being done in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere should be amplified. Like the Alliance for Peacebuilding has done, help can be offered to establish coordination hubs to provide diplomatic, legal and material assistance for such persons as well as call for others to provide resources for these civil society leaders and activists. This will lend concrete solidarity towards dynamics of nonviolent resistance that are twice as effective and 10 times more likely to lead to durable democracy.

2. Donors, governments and multilateral institutions can step up their support for unarmed civilian protection to nonviolently protect civilians. Unarmed civilian protection, or UCP, is an evidence-based strategy for the nonviolent direct protection of civilians, the reduction of localized violence, and the development of local peace infrastructures in which unarmed, trained civilians work alongside local civil society in violent conflicts. Congress directed the Secretary of State, in consultation with the USAID Administrator, to provide funds for UCP in its Explanatory Statement accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022.

3. All stakeholders, including adversaries, need to be re-humanized. This is done through the language, labels and narratives you choose to use. Although difficult, we must avoid labels such as calling persons or groups “evil,” “diabolical,” “irrational,” “thugs” or “monsters.” This doesn’t mean we agree with or justify their actions. Yet, the more we dehumanize others, the more we escalate, narrow our imagination and enable dynamics of violence.

4. Ukrainian President Zelensky should be encouraged to sign a phase one agreement with Russia to end the war. This will create space for more insightful thinking about how to address root causes and seek a more sustainable just peace. We know Russian leadership is responsible for their invasion. Yet, we have more influence on Zelensky at this point to take the moral high ground. For instance, a neutral Ukraine is likely worth it to save thousands of lives, at minimum.

5. A wave of strategic delegations or a humanitarian airlift into Ukraine to generate time and space, or peace zones, for interrupting hostilities should be considered. For example, this could include one or multiple allied countries landing huge cargo planes full of medicine and food in Ukraine. Top government (and maybe religious or other) officials would be on board. Cargo planes are not offensive fighter jets. The U.S. executed exactly such a humanitarian airlift when Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, which significantly contributed to the end of those hostilities.

Active nonviolence is not about condemning or judging people who lean toward violent resistance in really difficult situations like the one Ukrainians face. It affirms and admires their willingness to take a stand against injustice rather than to be passive. Active nonviolence is primarily about accompaniment, which can and is being done in a variety of creative, courageous, nonviolent ways by Ukrainians and others.

Drawing on a just peace framework helps us to better see these nonviolent possibilities and invites us further in their direction. It also helps us to see that violent action routinely escalates hostility, dehumanization and harm, and it creates other cycles of longer-term trauma and violence. More people could die in this dynamic. For example, Russia is now bombing more civilian areas. In turn, a just peace framework would also help us to focus on how we can break the dynamic of violence and build a more sustainable just peace. Let’s seriously consider these five steps and find a way to break free from the habits of war.

Eli S. McCarthy, PhD is a professor at Georgetown University in Justice and Peace Studies. Since 2012, he has been engaged in federal policy advocacy with a particular focus on peacebuilding, nonviolence and just peace with his most recent book: A Just Peace Ethic Primer: Building Sustainable Peace and Breaking Cycles of Violence (2020).

Resistance to War in Ukraine: Actions, News, Analyses, and Resources for Nonviolence

By Metta Center for Nonviolence

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(Reposted from: Metta Center for Nonviolence.)

See a fully updated list of resources on the Metta Center for Nonviolence website.

Actions inside of Russia and from Russians

Citizen and Other Actions Inside Ukraine*

Reports from Within Ukraine

Citizen Actions Around Globe

Tech and Big Business Actions

Political Actions excluding Generalized Sanctions

*Generalized Sanctions have been removed from this list because their intent is “punishment” of civilian populations. Targeted sanctions will be included.

Statements, Appeals, and Signs of Solidarity including Protest Actions

Ukrainians vs. Putin: Potential for Nonviolent Civilian-based Defense

By Maciej Bartkowski

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The data show that between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent struggles against occupiers succeeded 35% of the time while armed resistance succeeded 36% of the time (Chenoweth & Stephan 2011). Neither type of resistance succeeded more often than it failed, but successful and failed armed resistance lasted on average three times longer than its nonviolent counterparts; always came with a huge human and infrastructural cost for the local population (e.g. Vietnam 1960s); had much lower probability of building democracy afterwards (Algeria 1962); and destroyed or traumatized civil society (e.g. Hungary 1956) whose strength and mobilization are needed for democracy building and its sustainability.

(Reposted from: ICNC.  December 27, 2021)

With more than 150,000 Russian troops staged along on the Ukrainian border, and also massing in Belarus and the occupied territories of Crimea and Donbas, Ukraine is facing a potential full-fledged invasion by its larger authoritarian neighbor and the occupation of a sizable swath of its territory.

U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence services report that Russian President Vladimir Putin has not made up his mind yet about the invasion. However, time is of the essence. January and February are the most convenient months for Putin to invade because land remains frozen for easier and faster movement of heavy equipment including tanks, in the event that railways, bridges and roads are blown up.

If Putin decides to launch a full-scale military invasion, it will be because he thinks that he will achieve rapid military victory over his much more powerful forces over the Ukrainian army, even if the latter receives military support from the West. If he pushes his offensive all the way to Kiev, it would also signal his belief that the current Ukrainian government would be quickly removed from power and replaced by a puppet pro-Russian regime. Alongside is his view that the majority of the Ukrainian people would passively accept the Russian invasion and occupation in the same way the majority of the population inside Donbas and Crimea did from 2014 onward. After all, Putin claims Russians and Ukrainians are the same people and have simply been separated from each other by the Ukrainian nationalist elite. According to his rhetoric, once this elite is removed from power, Ukrainians would gladly accept reunification with Russia.

To influence Putin’s calculus about the full-scale invasion, some in Ukraine and the West emphasize that Ukrainians are ready for protracted guerrilla warfare and that Ukraine could be for the Russian leader what Afghanistan became for the Soviets. However this scenario, if realized, would be equally painful for Ukrainians as it would be for Russians. After all, Afghanistan was left in ruins and hundreds of thousands of people were killed and became refugees, even if eventually they prevailed over their invaders.

Putin’s assumptions are dangerous miscalculations with potentially terrible consequences for Ukrainians.


In 2015, the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) conducted a representative national survey1 that for the first time ever assessed Ukrainians’ preferences for resistance in case of a foreign armed invasion and occupation of their country. The poll took place just after the Euromaidan revolution and the capture of Crimea and the Donbas region by Russian troops, when it could be expected that Ukrainian public opinion would be strongly in favor of defending the motherland with arms. The results, however, revealed surprisingly strong support for an alternative to an armed-defense type of resistance: civilian-led nonviolent defense. The survey showed that the most popular choice of resistance among Ukrainians was to join nonviolent resistance: 29% supported this choice of action in case of foreign armed aggression and 26% in case of occupation. In contrast, armed resistance was supported by 24% and 25% respectively. See Figure 1. Only 13% of Ukrainians would behave in the way Putin would hope in case his troops invade Ukraine—do nothing.

Figure 1

It’s one thing that more respondents selected civilian-led nonviolent resistance than any other option. It’s even more remarkable that more than one-third of Ukrainians thought that this alternative type of resistance could be an effective means of defending their communities against a foreign adversary with a more powerful military. See Figure 2.

Figure 2

click to enlarge

These results, interestingly enough, correspond closely with the historical record of anti-occupational struggles. The data show that between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent struggles against occupiers succeeded 35% of the time while armed resistance succeeded 36% of the time (Chenoweth & Stephan 2011). Neither type of resistance succeeded more often than it failed, but successful and failed armed resistance lasted on average three times longer than its nonviolent counterparts; always came with a huge human and infrastructural cost for the local population (e.g. Vietnam 1960s); had much lower probability of building democracy afterwards (Algeria 1962); and destroyed or traumatized civil society (e.g. Hungary 1956) whose strength and mobilization are needed for democracy building and its sustainability. In contrast, nonviolent resistance historically can succeed much faster than armed struggle (Nepal 2004); even failed nonviolent resistance more effectively preserves the fabric of civil society to restart a fight another day (Czechoslovakia 1968) and it has much higher chances of building democracy than successful armed resistance (Poland 1980s vs. Afghanistan 1980s and 2000s).

Furthermore, according to the survey, those among Ukrainians who seek to protect territory are more willing to take up arms. Those seeking to protect their families and communities would rather turn to nonviolent resistance methods. See Figures 3a and 3b. There is a seemingly intuitive understanding among Ukrainians that armed resistance would inflict terrible costs on the local population. Potentially it makes better sense to use violent resistance far away from major urban centers where nonviolent resistance against occupiers could ensue in its stead.

Figure 3a

Figure 3b

Ukrainians were also asked to choose specific types of armed and nonviolent resistance actions that they would be ready to join or undertake themselves. Clear majorities chose various nonviolent resistance methods—ranging from symbolic to disruptive to constructive resistance actions against an occupier—rather than violent insurgent actions. In essence, the results demonstrated that the human capital for civilian-based nonviolent defense among Ukrainians was more than three times larger than that for armed resistance. See Figure 4.

Figure 4

Click to enlarge.


So, what do these findings mean in the context of a potential military invasion and occupation of Ukraine by Russian forces?

A few important takeaways include:

• Putin’s belief that Ukrainians would rather go home and do nothing in the face of military aggression may be his biggest and politically most costly miscalculation in the event that he decides to launch a full-scale invasion and occupation of large parts of Ukraine;

• Ukrainians do not necessarily embrace the idea of an Afghan scenario in which an armed guerrilla movement wages warfare against invaders that is equally destructive for the local population. Instead, they view unarmed defense and resistance of the civilian population not only as a plausible alternative that can better protect the population and minimize human costs of violent conflict but also as a way to achieve victory against a militarily stronger opponent;

• Successful anti-occupation struggles have always been a whole-of-nation endeavor. Unarmed resistance has greater mobilization potential for a whole society to participate in diverse actions of defiance and noncooperation than armed resistance;

• Ukrainians show a surprising level of support for the type of resistance that neither Ukrainian policymakers nor their Western backers have considered in their defense planning: mass nonviolent resistance actions against a formidable military invader. This human potential for nonviolent resistance remains unfortunately untapped in the Ukrainian national defense strategy;

• How Ukrainians defend their country against a more militarily powerful adversary will determine Ukraine’s future, including the survival of its nascent democracy. A protracted armed struggle often privileges a strongman to the detriment of democratic change. Ukraine’s activated population can be tapped not only to effectively resist foreign aggression by means other than arms but also to prevent an internal coup and emergence of a domestic military dictatorship—possibly closely allied with Russia—from overtaking the country’s young democracy.

A 2015 Lithuanian civilian-based defense manual, available both in English and Lithuanian.

• Civilian-based defense is neither an uncommon historical practice nor an alien concept to contemporary national defense strategies. Such resistance was a driving force behind various liberation struggles including: American colonists’ resistance against the British; Hungarians’ mobilization against the Austrian Habsburg monarchy; Polish civil resistance against partitioning empires, including Tsarist Russia in late 19th century; and pro-independence movements in Egypt, India, Bangladesh, Ghana, Estonia, among others. Nowadays, efforts are underway to integrate comprehensive nonviolent civilian-based defense in the Baltic states. This is highlighted in the specific recommendations for nonviolent defense strategies put forward by a respected U.S.-based security think tank. And Lithuania has been at the forefront of these implementation efforts when in 2016 the government adopted a new military strategy for “reliable deterrence [that requires preparing citizens for] unarmed civil resistance, [including] fostering their will and resilience to information attacks, as well as ability to engage in a total resistance…of the whole nation”. The Lithuanian Ministry of Defense issued two preparedness manuals on the “modes and principles of civil resistance” in its national defense.


1 The survey results were first described and presented in English in the coauthored article “To Kill or Not to Kill: Ukrainians Opt for Nonviolent Civil Resistance” published in Political Violence @ Glance.

Ukraine doesn’t need to match Russia’s military might to defend against invasion

By George Lakey

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(Reposted from: Waging Nonviolence.  February 25, 2022)

Throughout history, people facing occupation have tapped into the power of nonviolent struggle to thwart their invaders.

As with so many around the world, including thousands of brave Russians protesting against their country’s brutal invasion of neighboring Ukraine, I’m aware of the inadequate resources for defending Ukraine’s independence and wish for democracy. Biden, NATO countries, and others are marshalling economic power, but it seems not to be enough.

Granted, sending soldiers in would only make it worse. But what if there’s an untapped resource for wielding power that’s hardly being considered at all? What if the resource situation is something like this: There’s a village that for centuries has relied on a stream, and because of climate change it is now drying up. Given existing financial resources, the village is too far from the river to build a pipeline, and the village faces its end. What no one had noticed was a tiny spring in a ravine behind the cemetery, which — with some well-digging equipment — could become an abundant source of water and save the village?

At first glance that was the situation of Czechoslovakia on August 20, 1968, when the Soviet Union moved to re-assert its domination — Czech military power couldn’t save it. The country’s leader, Alexander Dubcek, locked his soldiers in their barracks to prevent a futile set of skirmishes that could only result in wounded and killed. As the troops of the Warsaw Pact marched into his country, he wrote instructions to his diplomats at the U.N. to make a case there, and used the midnight hours to prepare himself for arrest and the fate that awaited him in Moscow.

However, unnoticed by Dubcek, or foreign reporters or the invaders, there was the equivalent of a water source in the ravine behind the cemetery. What tapped it was the previous months of vibrant political expression by a growing movement of dissenters determined to create a new kind of social order: “socialism with a human face.” Large numbers of Czechs and Slovaks were already in motion before the invasion, acting together as they excitedly developed a new vision.

Their momentum served them well when the invasion began, and they improvised brilliantly. On Aug. 21, there was a brief standstill in Prague reportedly observed by hundreds of thousands. Airport officials at Ruzyno refused to supply Soviet planes with fuel. At a number of places, crowds sat in the path of oncoming tanks; in one village, citizens formed a human chain across a bridge over the river Upa for nine hours, inducing the Russian tanks eventually to turn tail.

To many observers in other countries who had wondered about the potential of tapping nonviolent power for defense, August 1968 was an eye-opener.

Swastikas were painted on tanks. Leaflets in Russian, German and Polish were distributed explaining to the invaders that they were in the wrong, and countless discussions were held between bewildered and defensive soldiers and angry Czech youths. Army units were given wrong directions, street signs and even village signs were changed, and there were refusals of cooperation and food. Clandestine radio stations broadcast advice and resistance news to the population.

On the second day of the invasion, a reported 20,000 people demonstrated in Wenceslas Square in Prague; on the third day a one-hour work stoppage left the square eerily still. On the fourth day young students and workers defied the Soviet curfew by a round-the-clock sit-down at the statue of St. Wenceslas. Nine out of 10 people on the streets of Prague were wearing Czech flags in their lapels. Whenever the Russians tried to announce something the people raised such a din that the Russians could not be heard.

Much of the energy of the resistance was spent weakening the will and increasing the confusion of the invading forces. By the third day, Soviet military authorities were putting out leaflets to their own troops with counter-arguments to those of the Czechs. The next day rotation began, with new units coming into the cities to replace Russian forces. The troops, constantly confronted but without the threat of personal injury, melted rapidly.

For the Kremlin, as well as for the Czechs and Slovaks, the stakes were high. To attain its objective of replacing the government, the Soviet Union was reportedly willing to convert Slovakia into a Soviet republic and Bohemia and Moravia into autonomous regions under Soviet control. What the Soviets overlooked, however, is that such control depends on the people’s willingness to be controlled — and that willingness was hardly to be seen.

The Kremlin was forced to compromise. Instead of arresting Dubcek and carrying out their plan, the Kremlin accepted a negotiated settlement. Both sides compromised.

For their part, the Czechs and Slovaks were brilliant nonviolent improvisers, but had no strategic plan — a plan that could bring into play their even more powerful weapons of sustained economic noncooperation, plus tapping other nonviolent tactics available. Even so, they achieved what most believed their most important goal: to continue with a Czech government rather than direct rule by the Soviets. Given the circumstances, it was in the moment a remarkable victory.

To many observers in other countries who had wondered about the potential of tapping nonviolent power for defense, August 1968 was an eye-opener. However, Czechoslovakia, wasn’t the first time real life existential threats stimulated fresh thinking about the usually-ignored power of nonviolent struggle.

Denmark and a famous military strategist

Like the ongoing search for potable water that can sustain life, the search for nonviolent power that can defend democracy attracts technologists: people who like to think about technique. Such a person was B. H. Liddell Hart, a famous British military strategist I met in 1964 at the Oxford University Conference on Civilian-Based Defense. (I was told to call him “Sir Basil.”)

Liddell Hart told us that he’d been invited by the Danish government soon after World War II to consult with them on military defense strategy. He did so, and advised them to replace their military with a nonviolent defense mounted by a trained populace.

Danes found a thousand and one ways to impede their use to the Germans. This widespread, energized creativity stood in stark contrast to the military alternative.

His advice prompted me to look more closely into what the Danes actually did when militarily occupied by next-door Nazi Germany during World War II. The Danish government knew of course that violent resistance was futile and would only result in dead and despairing Danes. Instead, the spirit of resistance developed both above and below ground. The Danish king resisted with symbolic actions, riding his horse through the streets of Copenhagen to keep up morale and wearing a Jewish star when the Nazi regime stepped up its persecution of the Jews. Many people still today know about the highly successful mass Jewish escape to neutral Sweden improvised by the Danish underground.

As the occupation ground on, the Danes became increasingly aware that their country was valuable to Hitler for its economic productivity. Hitler especially counted on the Danes to build warships for him, part of his plan to invade England.

The Danes understood (don’t we all?) that when someone depends on you for something, that gives you power! So Danish workers overnight went from being arguably the most brilliant shipbuilders of their day to the most clumsy and unproductive. Tools were “accidentally” dropped into the harbor, leaks sprang “by themselves” in the ships holds, and so on. The desperate Germans were sometimes driven to tow unfinished ships from Denmark to Hamburg in order to get them finished.

As the resistance grew, strikes became more frequent, along with workers leaving factories early because “I must get back to tending my garden while there’s still some light, because my family will starve without our vegetables.”

Danes found a thousand and one ways to impede their use to the Germans. This widespread, energized creativity stood in stark contrast to the military alternative of putting up violent resistance — carried out by only a percentage of the population — which would wound and kill many and bring stark privation to nearly all.

Factoring in the role of training

Other historic cases of brilliant improvised nonviolent resistance to invasion have been examined. The Norwegians, not to be outdone by the Danes, used their time under Nazi occupation to nonviolently prevent a Nazi take-over of their school system. This was despite the specific orders from the Norwegian Nazi placed in charge of the country, Vidkun Quisling, who was backed by a German occupation army of one soldier per 10 Norwegians.

Another participant I met in the Oxford conference, Wolfgang Sternstein, did his dissertation on the Ruhrkampf — the 1923 nonviolent resistance by German workers to the invasion of the coal and steel production center of the Ruhr Valley by French and Belgian troops, who were trying to seize steel production for German reparations. Wolfgang told me it was a highly effective struggle, called for by the democratic German government of that period, the Weimar Republic. It was in fact so effective that the French and Belgian governments recalled their troops because the entire Ruhr Valley went on strike. “Let them dig coal with their bayonets,” the workers said.

What strikes me as extraordinary about these and other successful cases is that the nonviolent combatants engaged in their struggle without the benefit of training. What army commander would order troops into combat without training them first?

I saw first-hand the difference it made for Northern students in the U.S. to be trained to go South to Mississippi and risk torture and death at the hands of the segregationists. The 1964 Freedom Summer considered it essential to be trained.

So, as a technique-oriented activist, I think of effective mobilization for defense requiring a thought-through strategy and solid training. Military people would agree with me. And what therefore boggles my mind is the high degree of effectiveness of nonviolent defense in these examples without benefit of either! Consider what they might have accomplished if they’d also been backed securely by strategy and training.

Why, then, wouldn’t any democratic government — not in hock to a military-industrial complex — want to seriously explore the possibilities of civilian-based defense?

George Lakey has been active in direct action campaigns for over six decades. Recently retired from Swarthmore College, he was first arrested in the civil rights movement and most recently in the climate justice movement. He has facilitated 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national and international levels. His 10 books and many articles reflect his social research into change on community and societal levels. His newest books are “Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians got it right and how we can, too” (2016) and “How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning” (2018.)

Ukraine’s secret weapon may prove to be civilian resistance

By Daniel Hunter

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(Reposted from: Waging Nonviolence.  February 27, 2022)

Unarmed Ukrainians changing road signs, blocking tanks and confronting the Russian military are showing their bravery and strategic brilliance.

Predictably, much of the Western press has focused on Ukrainian diplomatic or military resistance to Russia’s invasion, such as the arming of regular citizens to patrol and protect.

These forces have already proven stronger than Russian President Vladimir Putin has expected and are disrupting his plans with great courage. Take Yaryna Arieva and Sviatoslav Fursin who got married amidst air raid sirens. Right after their marriage vows they proceeded to sign-up with the local Territorial Defense Center to defend their country.

History shows that successful resistance against a militarily stronger opponent often requires a wide variety of resistance, including from those who are unarmed — a role that is often given less attention, both by the mainstream media and by maniacal power-obsessed opponents.

Yet, even as Putin’s swift invasion of Ukraine has left a lot of shock, Ukrainians are showing what unarmed people can do to resist, too.

Make it hard for the invaders

At this moment, the Russian military playbook appears to be focusing primarily on destroying the military and political infrastructure in Ukraine. The country’s military and newly armed civilians, as heroic as they are, are known factors for Russia. Just as the Western press ignores unarmed civilian resistance, the Russian military appears unprepared and clueless to this, too.

As people move past the shock of the past few days, it’s this unarmed part of the resistance that’s gaining momentum. Ukraine’s streets agency, Ukravtodor, called for “all road organizations, territorial communities, local governments to immediately begin dismantling nearby road signs.” They emphasized this with a photoshopped highway sign renamed: “Fuck you” “Again fuck you” and “To Russia fuck you.” Sources tell me versions of these are happening in real life. (The New York Times has reported on the sign changes as well.)

That same agency encouraged people to “block the enemy by all available methods.” People are using cranes to move cement blocks in the way, or regular citizens are setting up sandbags to block roadways.

Ukrainian news outlet HB showed a young man using his body to physically get in the way of a military convoy as they steamrolled through the streets. Reminiscent of Tiananmen Square’s “Tank Man,” the man stepped in front of speeding trucks, forcing them to veer around him and off the road. Unarmed and unprotected, his act is a symbol of bravery and risk.

This was echoed again by an individual in Bakhmach who, similarly, put his body in front of moving tanks and repeatedly pushed against them. However, it appeared many supporters were videotaping, but not participating. This is worth noting because — when consciously executed — these types of actions can be rapidly built upon. Coordinated resistance can spread and move from inspirational isolated acts to decisive acts capable of rebuffing an advancing army.

Very recent social media reports are showing this collective noncooperation. In shared videos, unarmed communities are facing down Russian tanks with apparent success. In this dramatic recorded confrontation, for example, community members walk slowly towards the tanks, open handed, and mostly without any words. The tank driver either does not have authorization or interest in opening fire. They choose retreat. This is being repeated in small towns across Ukraine.

These communal actions are often carried out by affinity groups — tiny cells of like-minded friends. Given the likelihood of repression, affinity groups can develop methods of communication (assuming the internet/cell phone service will be shut-down) and keep a level of tight planning. In long-term occupations, these cells may also emerge from existing networks — schools, churches/mosques and other institutions.

George Lakey makes the case for Ukrainian total noncooperation with an invading force, citing Czechoslovakia, where in 1968 people also renamed signs. In one instance, hundreds of people with linked arms blocked a major bridge for hours until Soviet tanks turned around in retreat.

The theme was total noncooperation wherever possible. Need oil? No. Need water? No. Need directions? Here’s the wrong ones.

Militaries assume that because they have guns they can get their way with unarmed civilians. Each act of noncooperation proves them wrong. Each resistance makes every tiny goal of the invaders a hard battle. Death by a thousand cuts.

No stranger to noncooperation

Just ahead of the invasion, researcher Maciej Mathias Bartkowski published an article with insightful data on Ukranian’s commitment to noncooperation. He noted a poll “just after the Euromaidan revolution and the capture of Crimea and the Donbas region by Russian troops, when it could be expected that Ukrainian public opinion would be strongly in favor of defending the motherland with arms.” People were asked what they would do if a foreign armed occupation took place in their town.

The plurality said they would engage in a civil resistance (26 percent), just ahead of the percentage ready to take arms (25 percent). The others were a mix of people who just didn’t know (19 percent) or said they would leave/move to another region.

The field of nonviolent resistance is heavy with examples of how the morale of soldiers gets reduced in the face of prolonged resistance, especially when civilians view the military as made-up of human beings that can be interacted with.

Ukranians have made clear their readiness to resist. And that should be no surprise to people familiar with Ukraine’s proud history and tradition. Most have contemporary examples in recent memory — as recounted in Netflix’s documentary “Winter on Fire” about the 2013-2014 Maidan revolution or the 17-day nonviolent resistance to overthrow their corrupt government in 2004, as recounted by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict’s film “Orange Revolution.”

One of Bartkowski’s key conclusions: “Putin’s belief that Ukrainians would rather go home and do nothing in the face of military aggression may be his biggest and politically most costly miscalculation.”

Weaken the resolve of the Russian military

Casually, people talk about the “Russian military” as if it’s a single-minded hive. But in fact all militaries are made up of individuals with their own stories, concerns, dreams and hopes. U.S. government intelligence, which has been surprisingly accurate in this moment, has asserted that Putin has not achieved his goals during this first phase of attack.

This suggests that the Russian military morale may be a little bit shaken by the resistance they’ve already seen. It’s not the expected quick win. In explaining the ability of Ukraine to hold its airspace, for example, the New York Times suggested a range of factors: a more seasoned army, more mobile air defense systems and likely poor Russian intelligence, which appeared to hit old, unused targets.

But if the Ukrainian armed forces begin to falter, then what?

Morale could swing back towards Russian invaders. Or they could instead find themselves met with even more resistance.

The field of nonviolent resistance is heavy with examples of how the morale of soldiers gets reduced in the face of prolonged resistance, especially when civilians view the military as made-up of human beings that can be interacted with.

Take inspiration from this old woman who stands down the Russian military in Henychesk, Kherson region. With arms outstretched she approaches soldiers, telling them they are not wanted here. She reaches into her pocket and takes out sunflower seeds and tries to put them in the soldier’s pocket, saying that the flowers would grow when the soldiers die on this land.

She’s involved in a human moral confrontation. The soldier is uncomfortable, edgy and reluctant to engage with her. But she stays pushy, confrontational and no-nonsense.

While we don’t know the outcome of this situation, scholars have noted how these types of repeated interactions shape the behavior of the opposing forces. The individuals in the military themselves are moveable creatures and can have their resolve weakened.

In other countries this strategic insight has proven capable of causing mass mutinies. The young Serbians in Otpor regularly said to their military opponents, “You’ll have a chance to join us.” They would use a mix of humor, berating and shame to target. In the Philippines, civilians surrounded the army and showered them with prayers, pleas and iconic flowers in their guns. In each case, the commitment paid off, as large chunks of the armed forces refused to shoot.

In his highly-relevant text “Civilian-Based Defense,” Gene Sharp explained the power of mutinies — and civilians’ ability to cause them. “Mutinies and the unreliability of troops in repressing the predominantly nonviolent Russian revolutions of 1905 and February 1917 were highly significant factors in the weakening and final downfall of the tsar’s regime.”

Mutinies increase as the resistance targets them, attempting to undermine their sense of legitimacy, appealing to their humanity, digging in with prolonged, committed resistance, and creating a compelling narrative that the invading force simply does not belong here.

Tiny cracks are already showing. On Saturday, in Perevalne, Crimea, Euromaidan Press reported that “half of Russian conscripts ran away and did not want to fight.” The lack of complete cohesion is an exploitable weakness — one increased when civilians refuse to dehumanize them and make attempts to doggedly win them over.

Internal resistance is just a part

Of course the civilian resistance is one piece of a very large geopolitical unfolding.

What happens in Russia matters a great deal. Perhaps as many as 1,800 anti-war protesters were arrested while protesting across Russia. Their courage and risk may tip a balance that reduces Putin’s hand. At the very least, it creates more space for humanizing their Ukrainian neighbors.

Protests around the world have added pressure on governments for further sanctions. These have likely contributed to the recent decision by the E.U., U.K. and U.S. to remove certain Russian banks from SWIFT, the worldwide network of 11,000 banking institutions to exchange money — and then to add more pressure by freezing Russia’s central bank’s reserves.

A dizzying number of corporate boycotts on Russian products have been called by a variety of sources and some of these may yet gain speed. Already some of the corporate pressure is paying off with Facebook and Youtube blocking Russian propaganda machines like RT.

However this unfolds, the mainstream press cannot be relied upon to lift up stories of civilian resistance. Those tactics and strategies may have to be shared across social media and other channels.

We will honor the bravery of the people in Ukraine, as we honor those resisting imperialism in its many forms across the globe today. Because for now, while Putin appears to be counting them out — to his own peril — Ukraine’s secret weapon of unarmed civilian resistance is only just starting to prove its bravery and strategic brilliance.

Editor’s note: The paragraph about community members confronting tanks and the tanks retreating was added after publication on Feb. 27as was the reference to the New York Times reporting on road signs being changed. The paragraph on sanctions was updated on March 1 to reflect the latest news.

Daniel Hunter is the Global Trainings Manager at and a curriculum designer with Sunrise Movement. He has trained extensively from ethnic minorities in Burma, pastors in Sierra Leone, and independence activists in northeast India. He has written multiple books, including the “Climate Resistance Handbook” and “Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow.”

National Security through Civilian-Based Defense

By Gene Sharp

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download the book “National Security through Civilian-Based Defense” here
Many people are now convinced that we need alternatives to present military deterrence and defense policies. The alternatives are usually still sought within the context of military assumptions and means, and so far only rarely beyond them. The search for alternatives is important and needs to be intensified. Present policies, with their serious limitations, would retain few supporters if superior substitute policies existed and were widely known.
Therefore, rather than dissipating our energies arguing about the merits and demerits of present and impending policies, or about the moral adequacy of just war and pacifist positions, we ought to focus primarily on developing effective alternatives and spreading public awareness of them.
This booklet is about one such alternative: civilian-based defense, that is, national defense against internal usurpations and foreign invasions by prepared nonviolent noncooperation and defiance by the population and the society’s institutions. The aim is to become able to deny attackers their objectives, to become politically unrulable by would-be tyrants, and to subvert the attackers’ troops and functionaries to unreliability and even mutiny. Such a prepared capacity, accurately perceived, would provide a different type of deterrent: facing such defense capacity, rational would-be aggressors would choose to stay away!
This policy has reached the level of governmental studies in several European countries. In North America it is receiving growing attention.
Civilian-based defense is not a panacea, nor a doctrine for which believers are sought. We all need to think for ourselves about its ap- plication, problems, and potential. We need to suggest to others, if we agree, that it merits investigation. On the basis of greater knowledge and understanding, the policy might be rejected as ineffective or inapplicable. It might, however, be found to provide the basic capacity to enable us to solve both the problems of aggression and of war.
This booklet has been prepared in response to expressions of need for such a brief publication on alternative defense conveyed to me during lecture trips in various parts of the country, from Maine to New Mexico. This booklet is only an introduction to civilian- based defense. Persons who find this of interest are strongly urged to study also the publications recommended for further reading. A newsletter and other educational projects on the policy are being undertaken by the Association for Transarmament Studies, 3636 Lafayette Avenue, Omaha, Nebraska 68131.
The main essay of this booklet was originally published in War/Peace Report (New York), April 1970, and was included in my Exploring Nonviolent Alternatives (Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1970). The original title was “National Defense WithoutArmaments.”Theessayhaslargelystoodthetestoftime, and has needed only the addition of several substantive discussions and slight editing for this edition.
“Research Areas and Policy Studies on Civilian-based Defense” is a further revision of two previously published papers on the topic: (1) “Research Areas on the Nature, Problems and Potentialities of Civilian Defense” in S.C. Biswas, editor, Gandhi:Theory and Practice, Social Impact and Contemporary Relevance: Proceedings of a Conference. Transactions of the Indian Institute ofAdvanced Study, Volume Eleven (Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1969), pp. 393-413; and (2) “Research Areas on Nonviolent Alternatives” in my Exploring Nonviolent Alternatives, pp. 73-113.
Numerous research problems and topics have been incorporated in this revision from suggestions made over the years by a large number of individuals in articles, memoranda, correspondence, and conversations. Acknowledgement is especially due to: Philip Bogdonoff, the late Hon. Alastair Buchan, April Carter, Theodor Ebert, Robert Irwin, Irving Janis, Jessie Jones, Daniel Katz, Herbert Kelman, Julia Kittross, Christopher Kruegler, Ronald McCarthy, Charles Nathan, Robert Nozick, the late Lars Porsholt, Adam Roberts, Theodor Roszak, Sandi Mandeville Tate, Kenneth Wadoski, and Kurt H.Wolff. Apologies to any who have unintentionally not been listed.
Several aides to thought, study, and action have been added to increase the usefulness of this booklet.
For editorial suggestions, I am grateful to David H. Albert, Philip Bogdonoff, Robert Irwin, and John McLeod. Philip Bogdonoff suggested the title.
Gene Sharp
Program on Nonviolent Sanctions in Conflict and Defense Center for International Affairs, 
Harvard University,
June 1985
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