by Jason MacLeodMarch 11, 2022
“I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over,” wrote Etienne de la Boétie, “but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.”
The French lawyer was railing against the divine right of kings in the 16th century. But he might have well been writing about Putin and Ukraine. La Boétie’s insights into political power went on to inspire revolutions around the world. It is this exact same praxis of noncooperation that will be key to defeating Putin and ending the Russian military’s occupation of Ukraine.
La Boétie knew then, as do the Russians driving civil resistance in the cities and towns of Russia today, that the tyrant is one man. By himself he cannot do anything. Understand Putin’s sources of power and peel away the pillars of support that prop him up, and the man’s rule will collapse.
Already we are seeing early signs of mass civilian-based noncooperation. Last week the entire staff at independent Russian TV station Dozhd walked out live on air while declaring “no to war” after being shut down over their coverage of the Ukrainian invasion. The week before, clerics from Russia’s influential Orthodox Church began publicly challenging Vladimir Putin’s call to arms. A total of 272 clerics now have signed an online petition to withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine (the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church has been personally close to Putin and provided him with moral cover and legitimacy in the past). Days before that, a Russian Quaker friend in Moscow wrote that he and many others are urging their children not to believe any of the imperialist propaganda being shown at school.
Some of these acts are small, but increasingly, individual dissent is joining up in potent collective action amid massive solidarity efforts for Ukrainian refugees and a new wave of international sanctions that finally have some teeth. Even in Putin’s army, loyalty cannot be taken for granted. Reports are circulating of Russian soldiers being sent to the front draining their vehicles of diesel, misplacing key parts, and losing morale as they realize that Ukrainians actually don’t want to be “liberated”; Putin has been lying to them. The United States and other countries very recently enacted sanctions targeting the Russian oligarchy, seizing their private yachts and undercutting their material and financial resources. This presents an urgent opportunity for Russian activists to synergize with the top-down actions taking place to induce defections across the spectrum—an essential part of nonviolent movement effectiveness.
While the protests inside Russia are heartening, and while I salute the thousands who have been arrested for nonviolently challenging Putin’s imperial ambitions, by themselves they will not be enough. This is born from history and personal experience.
Along with many of the readers of this blog, I marched in the streets in 2003 against the United States and their allies, as they prepared to invade Iraq. Millions of us protested. In cities and towns across the world the traffic stopped. The New York Times called us the “new superpower”. We failed because we didn’t target the sources of the power sustaining the invasion. We also failed to keep going. In the absence of a clear and coordinated strategy, and a structure to sustain the people power momentum, we succumbed to disorganized despair far too quickly.
If Russians can focus their outrage, pulling away the sycophantic hands that hold Putin up, and persist in the face of threats, then they have a chance. Increasingly that is what those in Russia are doing. Russian history can tell us something about this: in 1905, after a botched imperialist military adventure against Japan went horribly wrong, unprecedented mobilization across Russia, which manifested itself in waves of strikes and other forms of noncooperation, pushed the Russian Empire to the brink and forced the Russian emperor to make concessions and allow for the establishment of a parliament for the first time in what was an absolutist monarchy.
And while ordinary Russians acting together strategically are the engine of any revolution inside Russia, outsiders can also make a difference. Beyond targeting the human and material resources that Putin actually needs to wield violence and maintain power, it is also necessary to support and strengthen homegrown resistance inside Russia. Outsiders must carefully differentiate ordinary people from the ruler forced upon them. Otherwise, external assistance and solidarity runs the risk of being counter-productive, strengthening Putin’s rule rather than undermining it.
Mass civilian-based noncooperation inside Ukraine is also essential. This means denying the occupier everything they need, combined with a steely refusal to consent to humiliation. This approach enables more people to participate. It requires the kind of courage and defiance that Ukrainians clearly have. There is also a cultural dimension to this, maintaining language, traditions, identity and cultural practices alongside institutions of power, that may even have to be moved outside the country (this is sometimes referred to as prefigurative actions, practiced notably by Tibetans resisting Chinese domination).
In the literature on civil resistance, this approach is known as civilian-based defense. It is a non-military strategy to resist invasion and occupation. Such a strategy frustrated the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. A more organized and coordinated civilian-based defense strategy was successfully used to thwart a Soviet invasion of the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The leaders of those former Soviet republics also drew on policy advice from the prominent scholar Gene Sharp.
This is not pacifism. It owes more to military strategists like Carl von Clausewitz than to flower power. Again, the key is analyzing what the occupier needs and denying them that at every turn. Most visibly we have seen Ukrainians, aided by those in government, changing street signs, sending a clear message to the Russian army that they are not welcome.
Whether such strategies and tactics will take root, spread and succeed remains to be seen. Civil resistance, like violence, is not a guarantee of success. But as history and a quantitative study have shown us, it has a greater chance to succeed than many people realize.
The film Bringing Down a Dictator documents the many strategic steps that the Otpor! movement took—amid harsh repression—to bring down Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, which included navigating the risks that receiving foreign assistance carried for their movement. The film is also available in Russian here.
Crisis and rapid response: Funding support for Ukraine - Google doc shared by the Human Rights Funders Network.
An ICNC blog post by Hardy Merriman that addresses foreign actors wishing to support nonviolent pro-democracy movements both in material and non-material ways.
An ICNC blog post by by Chris Allan and A. Scott DuPree that explores how nonviolent movements mobilize material resources without going to foreign sources.
Albert Einstein Institute's report on nonviolent action in the liberation of Latvia.
Albert Einstein Institute's report on nonviolent resistance in Lithuania.
Jason MacLeod has spent the last three decades teaching civil resistance, strategy and community organizing at universities, in village settings, and with civil society organizations in Asia, Oceania and Australia. Much of his work has been in conflict zones, accompanying self-determination struggles in the region. Jason holds a PhD in social movements and politics from The University of Queensland.Read More