On September 3, the Ukrainian government adopted a new national defense strategy set on increasing military spending on weapons and military. Many US experts and officials have also focused their efforts to pressure the Obama administration to provide arms to Ukraine. However, many Ukrainians see another path for dealing with Russia’s armed aggression and occupation: civilian-led nonviolent resistance such as a recent series of nonviolent road blockades by Ukrainian activists and Crimean Tatars to stop Ukrainian companies from trading with occupied Crimea.
Since the onset of the conflict in the Donbas, Ukrainians have shown themselves willing to take up arms to defend their families and the country’s territorial integrity. However, no earlier opinion polls gave the respondents the choice of another path of struggle. A recently released national survey from a representative sample of 1000 adults conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) is the first to assess Ukrainians’ preferences for nonviolent resistance.
What Ukrainians Really Think
When asked how they would respond to foreign armed intervention or occupation of their places of living, the largest number of Ukrainians chose nonviolent resistance as the main strategy. See Figure 1 (click on graphs to enlarge).
Furthermore, more than one third of Ukrainians also think that nonviolent civil resistance could be an effective means to defend their communities against militarily more powerful foreign adversaries. See Figure 2.
Ukrainians are aligned with their government on the end goal of the struggle against Russian aggression: full liberation of both the territory and the people of Crimea and the Donbas. But they disagree on the means to reaching that ultimate end: twice as many Ukrainians believe that negotiation is the main means rather than arms. Most Ukrainians believe that the liberation struggle to win back the separatist-controlled regions in Donbas and occupied Crimea (40% and 44% respectively) will succeed when Ukraine moves forward on political reforms and reestablishes economic growth to raise the standard of living in the government controlled area – a strategy similar to West and East Germany during the Cold War.
Looking at lessons of history, more than one third of Ukrainians acknowledged their familiarity with the nonviolent mobilization and civil resistance of Donbas miners in the struggle for Ukraine’s independence between 1989-1991. Among these respondents, twice as many thought that similar actions today would be helpful in bringing about political change in the occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea.
Despite heightened patriotism, the government’s call to arms, and growing military drafts, Ukrainians remain skeptical about joining violent actions to defend their country. Less than one fifth of Ukrainians are ready to participate in armed resistance while 65% Ukrainians refuse to join any armed action. In contrast, the human capital for nonviolent resistance – in the form of strikes, boycotts, marches, slow downs, stay aways, and refusal to work for and/or or pay taxes to occupation authorities – is three times higher than for the armed struggle. See figures 3 and 4.
More than half cite the display of Ukrainian national symbols and participation in peaceful demonstrations as the most preferred method, followed closely by various types of political, economic, social, and cultural boycotts – actions that provide a variety of resistance methods and which are considered less vulnerable to repression and require less preparation.
The Ukrainian Government Should Listen
In a recent interview, the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, called for more arms to “create an effective defense force.” He also declared that the military threat from Russia will remain constant for decades and that “every generation of Ukrainians must have army experience.” If anything, the survey shows that Ukrainians do not necessarily favor militarization and would benefit more from nonviolent civil resistance experience, as many of them are ready to fight without arms.
The Ukrainian government is not entirely ignorant of the possibilities of nonviolent resistance. More than a year ago, Poroshenko called on the people of the Donbas region to engage in “civil disobedience to the so called people’s republics.” This call, however, was not backed up by any specific guidelines or planning on how to organize for – and execute – this type of resistance. The results of the KIIS survey indicate the impressive potential of the Ukrainian population for nonviolent resistance and the unique opportunity to engage government and civil society actors around new national defense mechanisms based on civilian mobilization.
Recommendations for Western policymakers
The KIIS findings suggest that Western policymakers could more closely align with preferences of the Ukrainian people if they acknowledged alternative strategies (that do not require weapons) for defending the country. This requires an acknowledgement that modernizing Ukraine’s army, while needed, is not a blanket solution for the conflict – rather, an investment in nonviolent resistance training and education for the population at large could prove a viable part of the national defense strategy.
History is filled with oft-forgotten or unacknowledged stories of nonviolent resistance against foreign occupation that can be useful in recognizing the power of nonviolent resistance. Examples of the integration of nonviolent defense into counter-strategies against Russian hybrid warfare as well as ISIS do, in fact, exist. Policymakers could expand their policy options if they moved beyond a narrow focus on preparing for armed conflict and engaged in more robust conversations about how to utilize human potential for mass-based, organized nonviolent defense and resistance.
Although Western and Ukrainian policymakers focus their energy and resources on modernization of the Ukrainian army, this constitutes neither a silver bullet for winning a costly, protracted struggle for liberation nor a strategy towards long-term resolution of the conflict. If anything, the survey results demonstrate the need for Western allies to harness the untapped, nonviolent force of the Ukrainian population. This will necessitate an investment in training Ukrainians how to conduct mass-based, disciplined civil resistance – an action that many Ukrainians consider effective and one which they are ready to employ.
Maciej Bartkowski is an adjunct faculty member at the Krieger School at Johns Hopkins University and a book editor of “Recovering Nonviolent History: Civil Resistance in Liberation Struggles”. Alina Polyakova is associate director of the Ukraine Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Her book, “The Dark Side of European Integration,” is coming out in late 2015.