When Unarmed civilians face Tanks — The Ukrainian Civil Resistance

Adi Levy
4 min readMar 5, 2022

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A human convoy of Ukrainian civilians stood still in front of Russian tanks. What were their chances of winning or changing the balance of power? Recent studies suggest that civil nonviolent resistance actions can be more effective than guerrilla warfare. But even without violence, costs might be high.

What is the most powerful weapon in the war? The answer for the Ukrainians who met with the Russian force in different cities is clear — to stand firm and still when the tanks arrive. Many will agree with them. Armored forces may face an extreme challenge confronting the internal, external, and international moral shield circulating unarmed civilians. Even if Putin ignores these civil actions, the outcomes depend on his troops’ resilience when they face unarmed civilians.

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

The civil blockade Ukrainians staged against the Russian armed forces is often called dilemma actions in which civilians rely on the moral power of nonviolence. Dilemma actions are designed to impose a moral dilemma on the enemy; Civilians are basically saying: You can shoot us and deal with the consequences, the criticism, the sanctions, and the guilt. Or, you can turn around and deal with the shame of losing the battle and avoid everything else. Either way, we win, and you lose. The main problem with this tactic is its full implantation. The success of dilemma actions depends on complete nonviolent discipline. It cannot succeed in the context of sporadic violence or in the presence of any violence of any kind. The main problem with this tactic is its full Implementation.

When Gandhi and his supporters stood determined against the British forces in the famous salt march in 1930, British soldiers beat their protests with batons causing severe injuries to many. Despite this, the Salt March was an astonishing success. The British were subject to international condemnation mainly because none of the protesters dared to raise a hand. The Indians accepted the blows without moving. This is not the case in Ukraine where civilians immediately resorted to guerrilla operations. Zelenskyy urged the people to resist and distributed weapons to civilian. Some used improvised weapons and factories are producing Molotov cocktails, and it is clear by now that Ukrainian defensive actions are violent. Against this backdrop, the combination of guerrilla operations and dilemma actions can lead to devastating results. In 1991, when East Timorese resisters used cold weapons or mild violence against the Indonesian occupation, the soldiers fired indiscriminately, thus leading to what was later called the Santa Cruz Massacre, which caused the deaths of about 250 protesters. In 1972, in Northern Ireland, when radical protesters threw stones at police barricades during a nonviolent demonstration for human rights, British paratroopers shot at the crowd claiming that snipers fired at them from the crowds. The British response became notoriously known as the Bloody Sunday. Combining guerrilla warfare with civilian resistance gives the enemy a reason to claim self-defense, change the narrative, and distort media coverage. It also offers soldiers legitimacy to use their weapons even against civilians.

Nevertheless, military inferiority may render nonviolent civil resistance the best option available to the occupied Ukrainians. Many historical examples exemplify such resistance’s chances of success. Nonviolent resistance helped Gandhi defeat the British might. It helped blacks in South Africa to end apartheid. In Egypt in 2011, civil protesters flooded the streets, scared the police away gained the army’s support. In that way, they were able to oust Mubarak after 30 years of rule.

Indeed, even when fighting against the most ruthless regimes, nonviolent civil resistance can pose a significant challenge. The power of such resistance depends heavily on civilians’ ability to mobilize the enemy’s military force in their favor. Armed soldiers that face unarmed civilians, children, women, and the elderly might face a difficult moral dilemma. Sometimes, this dilemma is strong enough to get them to refuse orders, defect, or escape. When this happens, nonviolent resistance undermines the military force of their enemies. While this method seems practicable, it involves quite a few challenges.

The hostility between the parties usually precludes the possibility of generating empathy among the occupying forces that arrive after a long and rigorous psychological training process that instills feelings of pride and patriotism within the soldiers. Soldiers fight under the conviction of their just cause. The same feelings of pride, patriotism, and determination make it difficult for the resisting side to fraternize with uninvited soldiers and gain their support. And yet, there have been cases in which this happened. An interesting example that even involved the same actors occurred in 1968. When the Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia, civilians turned to nonviolent resistance and began a dialogue with the soldiers upon their arrival. Surprisingly, the soldiers who were told they were fighting capitalism discovered that their enemies were socialists like them. As a result, their motivation dropped, and with it, the military force. While the unmediated discourse and personal connection can be an extremely powerful defensive force that can even tip the scales, it involves many risks. Ultimately, as in any war or conflict, the stakes in nonviolent resistance are high, and so are the costs.

Waging Nonviolence, Nonviolence Magazine

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Adi Levy

Ph.D. Visiting lecturer at the University of Haifa. Fascinated by the ethical questions of political science and trying to make sense of society and morality