Ukraine has endured massive destruction, displacement and at least tens of thousands of deaths as its people have fought against Russia’s invasion over the last year. But, asks Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, were there other, nonviolent paths not taken and would such resistance have fared better than warfare?

Pacifists and advocates of nonviolence are often dismissed as “tragically naïve”. For example, the argument goes, surely the Russian invasion of Ukraine could only be resisted on the battlefield. Hence the coordinated efforts by so many across the West and in Ukraine to send more weapons, enlist more fighters, and boost military spending and preparedness.

But what if those who were “tragically naïve” were the overwhelming majority of people who have rather uncritically embraced the assumption that Russian invasion could only be met by an armed response? What if Ukrainians hadn’t fought back, or rather hadn’t fought back violently? What if they had only “fought” back nonviolently?

The effectiveness of nonviolent resistance

I am well aware of course that this idea rubs against some deeply held assumptions about human nature, about the effectiveness (and legitimacy, and controllability) of violence, about how solidarity with victims of violence should be expressed. But are we definitely sure these assumptions are correct?

Firstly, there is growing evidence of the success of nonviolent methods of resistance – and not just in democracies, but in authoritarian regimes too. From Gandhi to the overthrow of Marcos in the Philippines, from the civil rights movement to the collapse of state communism or indeed Euromaidan in Ukraine, nonviolent resistance has demonstrable potential to be effective. (The new Journal of Pacifism and Nonviolence intends to scrutinise and reflect further on such examples).

In fact, as Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan’s prize-winning book Why Civil Resistance Works showed by looking at over 300 cases of violent and nonviolent resistance since 1900, whilst success is certainly not guaranteed, nonviolent resistance on the whole seems to work more than twice as often as violent resistance. It also shows that the societies that nonviolent resistance gives way to are generally more respectful of human rights and democratic principles. The Global Nonviolent Action Database lists hundreds of examples, including full and only partial successes.

What if the same commitment in terms of time, finance, administrative capacity and international coordination as has gone into the military response had instead gone since 2014 into training all Ukrainians into nonviolent resistance? Are we certain the outcome would have been worse than the flattened cities and over 200,000 deaths the war has cost so far?

In 1973, American political scientists Gene Sharp listed 198 methods of nonviolent resistance. These escalate from symbolic protests (speeches, petitions, posters, leaflets, marches, picketing, teach-ins, etc.) to non-cooperation (consumer boycott, refusals to pay, industrial or general strikes, boycotting elections, slow compliance, etc.) to intervention (civil disobedience, hunger strikes, sit-ins, nonviolent occupation, etc.). Others have been tried since, and the internet has opened even more possibilities.

Some of these nonviolent tactics were used at the start of the Ukraine war, including in Russia. But they were rare. And violent conflict soon came to dominate.

Now, let’s be honest: nonviolence tactics often still involve suffering. Nonviolent activists can still get beaten, shot, and killed. It requires courage to remain nonviolent when unjustly attacked (and I appreciate it’s easy for me to preach this from the comfort of my home). That’s why effective nonviolence requires training, and why plenty of organisations have specialised in providing it.

Would nonviolent resistance have defeated Russia right away? No. Had Russians walked through Ukraine and taken control, would there have been many victims of nonviolent attempts to block it, and/or victims the new Russian-controlled regime? Undoubtedly. But would the numbers surpass the blood and damage sustained through violent resistance so far? Is ultimate victory really more certain through war? Are we sure coordinated, disciplined nonviolent resistance would have been worse?

The wider impact of war

Consider also how violence polarises and encourages extremist views and their advocates to the surface. Every violence suffered turns into a call for even more violence in retaliation. Hatreds grow. Opponents are increasingly dehumanised. Instead, nonviolent activism addresses opponents as human beings too. It makes reconciliation less unfathomable.

Consider too the effects of growing militarism in Ukraine and Russia, but also Europe. From Nordic countries through the Baltics and across central Europe, conscription is being extended, army budgets increased, military alliances reinforced. Militaristic mindsets and violent masculinities are becoming more entrenched, with knock-on impacts in the wider political culture. Nonviolence would instead foster practices of peaceful (but genuine) opposition and refashion identities by cultivating empathy and more inclusive visions of a just peace.

Then consider Putin’s position. How long could he deploy Russians to repress and kill their neighbours before both Russian public opinion and the human beings executing his orders gradually turned against him? Indeed, could he have argued that Ukraine and NATO were a threat?

Or consider the small but real and terrifying risk of escalation to nuclear war. Would nuclear war be threatened against nonviolent Ukrainian resistance?

Finally, consider the victims. Quite apart from the civilian deaths, injuries and forced migrations, estimates are that at least 100,000 soldiers so far have died on each side, with many more injured. Many of those are conscripts. Was their death unavoidable and entirely the fault of the other side?

Imagining sustained nonviolent resistance to Russian invasion is inevitably counter-factual speculation. What we do know though is that the war has already been extremely damaging, that its costs are rising, that its outcome continues to be very uncertain, that it could escalate even further, and that it is feeding growing militarism across Europe and beyond.

Could the late scholar Dustin Howes be right, then, when he remarked that perhaps it is “the practitioners of violence,” not the pacifists, who “are more often the tragic idealists”?

Alexandre Christoyannopoulos is Reader in Politics and International Relations at Loughborough University. He is the author of Tolstoy’s Political Thought (2020), Christian Anarchism (2010), as well as a range of journal articles and book chapters on Leo Tolstoy and on religious anarchism. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Pacifism and Nonviolence. A full list of publications is available on his website.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Mstyslav Chernov, via Wikipedia. View of Euromaidan protests in central Kyiv, 08 December 2013.