Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are being forcibly mobilised. An “international legion” is being formed from hundreds of non-Ukrainians volunteers. People across the world are donating money to help Ukraine buy military equipment. Western countries are sending arms.
But could non-violent resistance be an effective or even better alternative?
Advocates of pacifism and nonviolence are often ridiculed as naïve, as dangerous, or even as unpatriotic cowards. Even in academic circles, pacifism is “subjugated” in the sense of being both dismissed and denigrated.
Yet a long tradition of pacifism counts at least one famous Russian among its ranks: Leo Tolstoy. Since he penned his passionate denunciations of all violence around 1880-1910, there has been mounting evidence that nonviolent resistance is more effective than violent resistance, even against despots. Nonviolent resistance also seems to lead to outcomes more respectful of human rights in the long term.
More research is needed on this, but what we do know is that nonviolence makes strategic use of the moral high ground. As Tolstoy would acknowledge, this doesn’t mean violence won’t happen, but the nonviolent protesters risk suffering violence rather than inflicting it. The same principle was put into practice by followers of Gandhi: they knew that violent repression of nonviolent protesters would attract attention.
It’s a brave strategy, and one as potentially risky as facing the enemy with weapons. And it might not work. But it can help shift the moral balance – and with it, the balance of power. It treats opponents as human beings, and could help convince them and their supporters to rethink what they are doing and their allegiances.
It’s not clear that violence always works either. We often assume it does. But any effectiveness depends on the response of the adversary, who might comply, or resist. Meanwhile violence polarises. It hardens resolves. And of course it claims victims, aggrieves friends and relatives, who might in turn seek revenge.
Nonviolent resistance to Russia’s invasion
In the case of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, many would argue that violent resistance meets the stringent criteria of “just war theory”. This is a war of imperialist aggression, of nostalgic power projection, driven in part by paranoia and revenge for the geopolitical losses and the brutal capitalist “shock therapy” of the 1990s.
The Ukrainians chose Volodymyr Zelensky as their president. They are in favour of closer ties with the EU and the west. Russia might feel threatened by Nato’s expansion, but those countries that joined did so precisely because they were afraid of Russia. This invasion, if anything, vindicates their fears. So the call to fight back is understandable – and tempting.
But there are other – nonviolent – ways of resisting. Some Ukrainians have stopped Russian tanks by blocking them. People have confronted troops with boos, chants and verbal tirades. The Ukrainian road company has encouraged people to remove road signs to confuse the invaders.