Ukraine is a country with more than 100 years of experience in nonviolent action. Since the beginning of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian civil society has spontaneously and courageously organized to counter the military occupation through hundreds of nonviolent actions, including civil disobedience, road blockades, civilian evacuation, and communication campaigns. This article summarizes the long history and accomplishments of Ukrainian civil resistance.
Drawing on interview-based research with 55 political and social actors in the country, including representatives of public institutions, NGOs, activists, academics and religious institutions, this article surveys the longer report on Ukrainian Nonviolent Civil Resistance in the Face of War, which catalogs and maps a broad range of tactics and impacts. The research documented 235 verified and systematized nonviolent actions from February 24 to June 30, 2022, now available in an interactive map.
Ukrainian History of Civil Resistance
The Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Soviet Empires attempted to subvert Ukraine’s multicultural and independent identity. In our interview with Yevhen Hlibovytsky, professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University, he noted that “Ukraine is a melting pot of multiple identities that retain their differences but act as a single ecosystem” (April 17, 2022).
The Soviet Union tried to subjugate the Ukrainian people through centralized power structures and the notion of global Soviet identity based on communist principles. To avoid this process, the Ukrainian people developed informal networks and institutions for selfgovernance. This history led to strong social capital and horizontal networks based on trust. Despite Soviet repression, Ukraine developed an intellectual and cultural movement that claimed Ukrainian identity.
A year before Ukraine’s declaration of independence, on October 2, 1990, student movements occupied the streets of Kyiv, Lviv and Kharkiv to demand an end to Moscow’s control in what became known as the Granite Revolution. This was followed by the Orange Revolution, from 2004 to 2005, when Ukrainian citizens protested and documented electoral fraud.
The 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution was a turning point in Ukraine’s social transformation. Euromaidan, also known as the Revolution of Dignity, arose in response to President Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the political association and free trade agreement with the European Union. Ukrainian civil resistance to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine is best understood within this longer history.
2022 Examples of Ukrainian Civil Resistance
Our research documented 148 acts of protest and dissuasion, 51 instances of nonviolent intervention, and 36 measures of non-cooperation.
Some resistance actions contributed to stopping the invasion in the country’s north and hindered the institutionalization of the Russian military occupation in its early stages. Persistent public demonstrations with extensive use of Ukrainian flags and symbols denied the Russian narrative of liberation of the Ukrainian people. Even in traditionally pro-Russian Ukrainian regions such as Kherson, local residents blocked a Russian convoy and forced it to turn around. Citizens in Odessa built a wall of sandbags against a potential invasion through their beach. Residents in Lviv built anti-tank obstacles against the Russian invasion. The community of Podolianochka implemented a communication system to identify saboteurs in their neighborhood. When Russian forces kidnapped the mayor of Skadovsk, the public protested even though the Russian military threw tear gas grenades and fired weapons to disperse protesters. The mayor was released immediately after the protests.
Nonviolent resistance included strategies to maintain social cohesion and community resilience in the face of fear and uncertainty caused by the invasion. For example, a group of locals from the Dobrianka village gathered on the Ukraine-Belarus border to sing the national hymn and let the Belorussian and Russian soldiers know that they were not welcome in Ukraine. Residents of Brylivka village gathered to protest and sing Ukrainian folk songs in front of Russian soldiers.
Civil society built a broad protection system for the tasks of evacuation, transport, and relocation of the population, including financial support, counseling and psychosocial help for women, human rights defenders and other groups affected by the violence. In Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and local priests provided protection and civilian evacuations from conflict-affected towns. Local residents in the Chernihiv oblast developed a communication system to find safe routes to move within the occupied region, accessing Chernihiv City with food, medicines and other supplies.
The robust war crimes monitoring infrastructure created by leading human rights organizations and advocacy centers in Ukraine has enabled the collection and verification of thousands of cases of serious violations committed by Russian troops. These actions have empowered citizens to denounce damage to physical infrastructure and abuses of the civilian population through various physical or virtual means.
Civilians in Ukraine have demonstrated strong capacities for civil resistance. Over the last decade, such creativity and resilience has grown. However, more can still be done. Our report on Ukrainian Nonviolent Civil Resistance in the Face of War includes a variety of recommendations, the first four of which are included here.
1. Strengthen nonviolent civil resistance in Ukraine and the region. Ensure financial and political support to nonviolent activists and organizations through the creation of a specialized, flexible fund–one that’s easy to manage– to support civil resistance initiatives in the occupied areas and encourage social cohesion. The work of nonviolent activists should be recognized politically and socially through advocacy and raising awareness campaigns.
2. Develop a system of protection of human rights defenders. This should include psychosocial support, as well as the protection of activists in areas under temporary Russian military occupation. Such protection would be based upon the guiding principles of the EU Human Rights Defenders, and in coordination with Ukrainian and international human rights organizations.
3. Support the war crimes monitoring and accountability system. Provide mechanisms to ensure access to justice and the rule of law through human rights protection platforms. Incorporate a transitional justice perspective that includes the investigation of all war crimes and aggressions by non-state armed actors.
4. Strengthen community resilience and social cohesion. Develop a national capacity building program on conflict transformation, nonviolent action and digital resilience. This would include mass training for Ukrainian youth, and resources to youth centers to develop nonviolent counter-narratives in cooperation with local and digital media.
Written by Felip Daza, a professor at the University Sciences Po Paris and the International Institute for Nonviolent Action (NOVACT).