Calling on the U.S. to Support Nonviolent Resistance in Ukraine

By Eli McCarthy, Inkstick, January 12, 2023

The International Catalan Institute for Peace recently released a profound, provocative, and potentially conflict-changing report on the broad range and deep impact of courageous Ukrainian nonviolent resistance and non-cooperation to the Russian invasion. The report examines civilian nonviolent resistance activity from February through June 2022, intending to identify their characteristics and impacts.

The report’s research involved over 55 interviews, identified over 235 nonviolent actions, and found that nonviolent resistance has hindered some of the Russian authorities’ long-term military and political goals, such as the institutionalization of military occupation and repression in the occupied territories. Nonviolent resistance has also protected many civilians, undermined the Russian narrative, built community resilience, and strengthened local governance. These efforts present the US government with a critical opportunity to support Ukrainians in concrete, practical ways to help shift power dynamics on the ground.


Some examples of courageous nonviolent action include Ukrainians blocking convoys and tanks and standing their ground even with warning shots being fired in multiple towns. In Berdyansk and Kulykіvka, people organized peace rallies and convinced the Russian military to get out. Hundreds protested the abduction of a mayor, and there have been protests and refusals to shift to the rouble in Kherson to resist becoming a breakaway state. Ukrainians have also fraternized with Russian soldiers to lower their morale and stimulate defections. Ukrainians have courageously evacuated many people from dangerous areas. For example, the Ukrainian League of Mediators is helping address increasing polarization within Ukrainian families and communities to minimize the violence.

Another report by the Peace, Action, Training and Research Institute of Romania includes recent examples of non-cooperation by ordinary Ukrainians, such as farmers refusing to sell grain to Russian forces and provide aid to Russian troops. Ukrainians have also set up alternative administrative centers and hid activists and local government staff like officials, administrative officers, and school directors. Ukrainian educators have also rejected Russian standards for educational programs, maintaining their own standards.

Working to undermine support for the war in Russia is a critical strategic initiative. For instance, a project proposal by regional experts in Kyiv working with Nonviolence International, a nongovernmental organization, is mobilizing Russians outside Russia to communicate strategic anti-war messages to Russian civil society. In addition, strategic initiatives to generate defections from the Russian military and support those who have already left to avoid conscription are critical opportunities for US foreign policy.

I traveled to Kyiv at the end of May 2022 as part of an interfaith delegation. At the end of August, I joined the Peace, Action, Training and Research Institute of Romania, based in Romania, on a trip to Ukraine to meet with leading nonviolent activists and peacebuilders. They had meetings to increase their collaboration and improve their strategies. We heard their stories of resistance and their need for support and resources. Many of them went to Brussels with other international partners to advocate for more funding to support such activities, and asked for similar advocacy to the US government.

The Ukrainians we met asked that we call on key leaders, such as members of Congress and the White House, to act in three ways. First, by sharing their examples of nonviolent resistance. Second, by advocating to the Ukrainian government and other governments to support them by developing a nonviolent strategy of non-cooperation to the occupation. And third, by providing financial, strategic campaign training, and technology/digital security resources. Finally, but most pointedly, they asked that they not be left alone.

One of the conflict monitors we met in Kharkiv is resourced by the UN and said that in the occupied areas where nonviolent resistance was the primary method, the Ukrainians faced less repression in response to this kind of resistance. In the regions with violent resistance, the Ukrainians faced more repression in response to their resistance. The Nonviolent Peaceforce has also begun programming in Mykolaiv and Kharkiv in Ukraine. They are providing unarmed civilian protection and accompaniment, especially to the elderly, disabled, children, etc. US foreign policy could directly support and scale up such existing programs and proven methodologies.


In a groundbreaking book, “Why Civil Resistance Works,” researchers analyzed more than 300 contemporary conflicts and showed that nonviolent resistance is twice as effective as violent resistance and at least ten times more likely to lead to durable democracy, including against authoritarians. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan’s research included campaigns with specific objectives, such as resisting occupation or seeking self-determination. These are both relevant aspects of the broader situation and protracted conflict in Ukraine, as areas of Ukraine have been under occupation and the country seeks to defend its self-determination as a nation.

Suppose US foreign policy leans into the work of supporting mass organized coalitions of nonviolent resistance. In that case, we are more likely to cultivate habits, both in persons and societies, that correspond to more durable democracies, cooperative security, and human flourishing. Such habits include broader participation in politics and society, consensus-making, broad coalition-building, courageous risk-taking, engaging in conflict constructively, humanization, creativity, empathy, and compassion.

US foreign policy has long been involved in Ukraine with questionable and shifting objectives. Yet, there is a significant opportunity to deepen and refine our solidarity with the Ukrainian people based on the direct requests of these Ukrainian peacebuilders and nonviolent activists. On their behalf, I ask Congress, congressional staff, and the White House to share this report and these stories with key decision-makers.

It is time to work with the Ukrainian government to develop a coherent non-cooperation and nonviolent resistance strategy that will support such Ukrainian activists and peacebuilders. It is also time for US leadership to invest significant financial resources in training, digital security, and material assistance for these peacebuilders and nonviolent activists in any future Ukrainian aid packages as we try to create conditions for a sustainable, just peace.

Eli McCarthy is a Professor of Justice and Peace Studies at Georgetown University and Co-Founder/Director of the DC Peace Team.

5 Responses

  1. This article is very interesting and thought-provoking. My question, is when a country such as Putin’s Russia is blatantly committing genocide against the Ukrainians, how can non-violent resistance overcome this? If the United States and other NATO countries stop sending arms to Ukraine, won’t that lead to complete occupation of Ukraine by Putin’s forces and wholesale mass killing of the Ukrainian people? Are the majority of the Ukrainian people for non-violent resistance as a means of getting Russian troops and mercenaries out of Ukraine? I also feel that this is Putin’s war, and the majority of the Russian people are not for this needless slaughter, either. I would sincerely like an answer to these questions. I will read the report, with the understanding that the war has gone on for another half a year since June 2022, with more cruel and inhumane atrocities by Putin’s troops. I completely agree with your conclusion: “It is also time for US leadership to invest significant financial resources in training, digital security, and material assistance for these peacebuilders and nonviolent activists in any future Ukrainian aid packages as we try to create conditions for a sustainable, just peace.” Thank you very much for writing this.

    1. In your questions I see some flawed assumptions (in my opinion – obviously I have my own biases and oversights).
      1) That war crimes and atrocities are one-sided: this is objectively untrue and is even reported on by western media, though usually veiled through justifications and buried behind the front page. Remember also that this war has been in some form going on since 2014. All we can say for sure is that the longer the war goes, the more crimes will be committed by all sides. Don’t confuse this as being a veiled justification for Russian crimes or a claim that Ukraine is equally culpable. But given what happened in Odessa in 2014, what continues to happen in Donbas, and brutal videotaped mass executions of Russian POWs as an example, I have zero faith that a Ukrainian “liberation” of Crimea, for example, will be benevolent. And I suppose another difference between myself and many pro-war folks is that I don’t classify all Russians or Russian soldiers as “orcs”. They are human beings.
      2) If the U.S and NATO stop sending weapons – Russia will take advantage and completely conquer Ukraine. The decision to stop weapons does not have to be unilateral and can be conditional. The way the conflict has been going – steadily the U.S has increased direct and indirect military support, continuously pushing the boundaries (remember when Biden ruled out Patriot defense systems?). And we should all be asking where this could end. Thinking this way justifies the logic of DE-escalation. Each side must take steps to prove its own good faith. I do not buy the argument that Russia was “unprovoked” by the way – one of the common arguments against negotiation.
      3) The Russian public does not support the war – you have no insight into this and admit as much. Likewise, you don’t know what the people who currently live in Donbas and Crimea feel. What about the Ukrainians who fled into Russia after civil war broke out in 2014? But anyways this is the assumption behind the U.S + NATO approach: kill enough Russians and they will change their mind and ideally get rid of Putin in the process (and maybe Blackrock can get some stakes in Russian gas and oil companies too). Likewise, this is the same strategy for Russia – kill enough Ukrainians, cause enough damage, that Ukraine / NATO / the EU accept a different bargain. Yet on all sides, in Russia, even Zelensky at times, and high ranking U.S generals have stated that negotiations will be needed. So why not spare hundreds of thousands of lives? Why not enable the 9+ million refugees to go home (by the way, nearly 3 million of them are in Russia). If the U.S and NATO actually cared about regular Russian and Ukrainian people, they would support this approach. But I do lose hope, when I consider what has happened to Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Liberia.
      4) That a majority of Ukrainians must support a non-violent approach for it to be valid. The key question is – what is best for everyone? What is best for humanity? If you believe that this is a war for “democracy” and the “liberal world order” then maybe you will demand unconditional victory (but hopefully you acknowledge the privilege you have to demand that from the comfort of your home). Maybe you will overlook the less attractive elements of Ukrainian nationalism (I am still surprised that Stepan Bandera’s birthday is officially recognized – you would think they would have quietly erased that off the holiday calendar). But when I look at the U.S support for the blockade of Yemen, the convenient occupation of Syrian oil fields, the roaring profits of U.S energy companies and arms manufacturers, I question who exactly benefits from the current world order, and how good it really is.

      I lose faith every day but for now I still firmly believe that if enough people around the world – including in the United States, Russia, and Ukraine – demanded peace – it could happen.

  2. I am a Canadian. In 2014, after the Russian invasion of Crimea, and after the Russian overseen referendum which lacked credibility and changed nothing, I was very disappointed to hear our, then, Prime Minister, Stephen Harper say to Putin “You need to get out of Crimea.” This comment was completely useless and changed nothing, when Harper could have done so much more.

    Harper could have proposed a UN supervised referendum. He could have pointed to the fact that Canada has successfully dealt with a region of Canada, namely the province of Quebec, than has been ambivalent about being part of Canada. What’s noteworthy about this relationship is that there has been minimal violence. Surely this history is worth sharing with Putin (and Zelenskyy).

    I would encourage the Ukrainian Peace Movement to contact the Canadian government (which is no longer headed by Harper) and encourage that government to seek to share it’s history of disputed affiliation with those involved in that dispute. Canada is joining the world in supply weapons to Ukraine. It could do so much better.

  3. I feel real gratitude for the Catalan Institute for Peace, for WBW, and also to those who’ve made the comments on this article. This discussion reminds me of the preamble to the UNESCO constitution, which reminds us that since wars begin in our minds, it is in our minds that the defences of peace must be constructed. That’s why articles like this, and the discussion as well, are so important.
    BTW, I would say my main source of nonviolence education, which has impacted not only my views but also my actions, has been Conscience Canada. We’re looking for new board members 🙂

  4. That the concept of non-violent resolution is still alive after centuries of constant war is a credit to that part of humankind that loves peace I am almost 94. My father came home from WWI shell shocked, gassed, 100% disabled, and a pacifist. In my teens, a few boys lied about their age and went into WWII. I collected scrap metal and sold war stamps. My little brother was drafted at athen end of WWII and spent his time in the service playing French Horn in occupied Europe. My young husband was 4F. We farmed and I taught school and did scientific illustration to put him through a PhD. I joined the Quakers who articulate non-iolence and work worldwide for peace. I went on a self-financed Peace Pilgrimage 1983 to 91 teaching Johanna Macy’s non-violent communication skills called “Despair & Empowerment” in 29 states and Canada, and made slideshows from portraits of the peacemakers I met along the way, then showed and distributed those for another ten years. I went back to school for a five-year post-doctoral Masters and became what I want to be when I grow up, an Art Therapist. From age 66 on I worked in that profession and also started a community center in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, that is still helping the poor to improve their skills, to learn community organizing and democratic decision-making. Now, living in a small senior residence in southwest Oregon. I have come to believe that humankind has fouled its nest so totally that human life on earth is about to end. I grieve for my beloved planet.

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