May 21, 2022 Editor

Ukraine-Russia crisis: Nonviolent resistance is a brave and often effective response to aggression

Fighting violently against a power like Russia also poses considerable risks


image above: People hold signs as Fridays for Future activists demonstrate against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Berlin, Germany, March 3, 2022. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse | Photo Credit: ANNEGRET HILSE

WN: Jesus did not teach: “Blessed are the violent resisters. . . ;” rather “Blessed are the peacemakers. . .”


Responses to the Russian invasion have been swift. Thousands of people both in Ukraine and abroad are enlisting to fight against the odds.

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?

If we believe in the final victory of God over evil forces, then we should be willing to wait for it. We do not have to hurry up God’s victory by causing suffering to our present enemies, or by killing them.Lois Barrett, The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament

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.

Further away, the activist group Anonymous has been waging cyber-attacks against Russia. Major international corporations and sports organisations are cutting ties with Russia. The toughening economic sanctions imposed by multiple governments will put further pressure on Putin and the Russian elite (although they will cause considerable suffering to the Russian population).

Non-violent resistance on the horizon?

So, plenty of responses to Putin’s invasion have been nonviolent, some very creatively so. There are more options. In his 1973 study, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, the American political scientist Gene Sharp listed 198 potential methods of nonviolent action, which some have since updated to include possibilities opened by the internet.

Even as individuals away from the conflict, we make choices every day that can join in the effort. Either way, responses that do not opt for violence are still responses, just ones involving no physical violence – and sometimes, for Russians and especially for Ukrainians, at very considerable personal risks.

Nonviolent resistance, and especially nonviolent resistance where the resister nonetheless still risks suffering violence, instead spreads hesitation and doubt in the invading force. It keeps delegitimising the actions of regime backers. It might make them start reconsidering their allegiances.

It is of course easy to say all this from a comfortable shelter away from the conflict. I do not mean to lecture people on the ground. It is up to Ukrainians, currently living the horrors of this war, to decide how to best defend their communities and their country against military invasion. The anger at the invasion is justifiable, the urge to resist too, and the temptation to do so violently understandable.

Please click on: Nonviolent Resistance

Visits: 77


Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.