Unarmed people block tanks. Street signs are changed so that “F*ck you!” is written on them or all roads point to The Hague to the International Criminal Court. Videos circulate of Ukrainians offering to tow Russian soldiers stranded without fuel to Moscow, and pictures of Russian deserters being welcomed with tea and cheers. Across Europe, people are organizing mutual aid networks to bring and distribute relief supplies to Ukraine, and help to house and care for refugees. In Russia, thousands risk their freedom and lives in demonstrations, while hundreds of priests boldly defy their hierarchy, call for insubordination, and threaten President Putin with damnation. Hackers break through state television’s media blackout and broadcast censored war footage. Thousands of volunteers are using Google reviews and other creative ways to create open channels of communication and counter the warmongering lies of state propaganda.
This reality of mass and nonviolent resistance in Ukraine and Russia is routinely sidelined and ignored in discussions of a “turning point [Zeitenwende] in the ethics of peace,” or at best is seen as secondary to the military defense of Ukraine and economic sanctions against Russia. This is particularly clear in . also ignores civilian defense, only mentioning the production of Molotov cocktails by members of his congregation.
This selective perception, and the feeling of powerlessness in the face of aggressive war, lead to the fatal call for rearmament. In the process, strategic intervention options to weaken Putin’s power are gambled away. In the zeal for more “realism,” the results of empirical research are ignored, which have shown that nonviolent movements have been about twice as successful over the past hundred years as those that have relied on armed struggle.
In what follows, I would like to briefly place the spontaneous forms of nonviolent resistance in the context of research on civil resistance and social defense, in the hope of contributing to the debate about a peace ethic which is both Christian and realistic. I will conclude with a series of questions that a realist and Christian peace ethic would need to ask itself.
Nonviolent Defense: Weakening the Power of the Adversary
All the examples mentioned above are forms of civil resistance or nonviolent defense, which contribute to the fact that the democratically legitimized government of Ukraine has still not fallen two weeks after the start of the brutal and illegal Russian invasion. Given the difficulty of gaining unbiased information, it is difficult to assess how numerous these actions are and what impact they have on the dynamics of the conflict. But in light of comparative research on nonviolent and armed resistance, there are good reasons to believe that they play a significant role in breaking the Russian army’s morale, thus eroding with time one of the Putin regime’s key pillars.
Contrary to what is often claimed, the goal of nonviolent resistance is not to arouse the sympathy of dictators or to persuade oppressors to repent. Rather, nonviolent resistance aims to weaken the power of the opponent so that he can no longer do any harm. To do this, one analyzes the pillars on which the opponent’s power rests, identifies weak points and develops strategies to exploit them and bring down certain pillars, for example by deliberately trying to limit access to resources, exacerbate internal conflicts or persuade individual groups to engage in open or covert forms of noncooperation.
From Dictatorship to Democracy
This understanding of nonviolent resistance has been profoundly influenced by conflict researcher Gene Sharp, who died in 2018 and whose life’s work was research into the dynamics of nonviolent struggle. In his doctoral dissertation, Sharp examined historical examples of nonviolent resistance and analyzed their dynamics. Sharp saw himself only as a researcher and portrayed nonviolent resistance as a way people reacted across time and places that is at the same time deeply context-dependent. At the same time, Sharp’s concepts shaped protest movements all over the world.
Sharp’s short pamphlet “” influenced the Serbian activists of Otpor, whose humorous and cleverly escalating campaigns achieved what even NATO’s bombs could not: the fall of dictator Milosevic. From there, the concepts spread both to Eastern Europe, where they had a lasting impact on the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, as well as the renewed Maidan protests in 2014, and to Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. His ideas helped the actors of the Arab Spring to develop their own strategies. The mass forms of civil defense we are currently witnessing in Ukraine also grow out of the fertile ground of these experiences.
Sharp’s central theoretical insight is that power is not a thing by itself, but rather a relationship that depends significantly on the consent of others. Without the governed, rulers cannot rule; without tax officials, they cannot collect taxes; and without engineers, they cannot build bridges, palaces, or weapons. This idea of consent should not be confused with freely-given consent. In addition to control of material resources (money, raw materials, weapons, etc.), human resources, and knowledge, Sharp explicitly identifies fear of repression, economic dependence of the people on the status quo, and respect for authority as pillars of power.
Yet this perspective is deeply encouraging because it follows that if the ruled withdraw their consent and succeed in shaking a few of the regime’s other supporting pillars, they can win. If, for example, more and more influential supporters withdraw or large parts of the security apparatus refuse orders, then the ruler’s days are numbered.
How Civil Resistance Works
In their groundbreaking study, Why Civil Resistance Works, political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan examined several hundred twentieth-century protest movements with maximalist goals (ending an occupation, gaining independence for a territory, or changing the ruler) and came to a conclusion that was surprising even to them:
Although both nonviolent and violent uprisings against military occupations or authoritarian regimes failed depressingly often, nonviolent movements were on average about twice as successful as violent ones (53% success compared to 25%). They also noted that even when they failed, the long-term consequences of nonviolent movements tended to point toward democracy, while violent revolutions that failed or succeeded increased the chances of civil wars or dictatorships.
These empirical findings refute the widespread assumption, current also in the recent critical contributions to a “new peace ethic,” that in the face of ruthless autocrats only violence can help. On the contrary, the decision to rely on military defense considerably reduces the chances of success! This alone would be reason enough to place the logic of nonviolent resistance at the center of a realistic peace ethic.
But what makes nonviolent movements so successful? How can the chances of success for resistance be increased, and what are the pitfalls?
According to Chenoweth and Stephan, there are three main ingredients needed for success:
1. broad participation by diverse groups,
2. shifting tactics that build pressure while minimizing repression,
3. shifts in loyalties within key pillars of an opponent’s power.
All three factors are important, but broad participation is particularly valuable because it generates synergy. The larger the group, the less risk there is for individual participants. At the same time, there is an ever-increasing sense of efficacy, which in turn leads to the growth of the resistance movement.
Especially in contexts of high repression, such as in Russia, it is important not to rely only on centralized protest marches. Instead, dispersed tactics must also be established, such as a time when everyone at home bangs loudly on their pots with the window open, expressing their anger at Putin, and at the same time noticing that there may be others who feel the same way.
At least as important as the unity of one’s own group is a movement’s ability to split the opposing camp and cause shifts in loyalties within the pillars of its power. These can range from outright desertion, as reported en masse from Ukraine, to mere restraint by those who otherwise actively support the regime. (See China’s abstention in the UN, or the stance of individual Russian oligarchs.) Particular weight is given to individuals, groups, or institutions that control resources, have special skills (e.g., engineers who keep natural gas production going, or maintain aircraft), or have special recognition in society. These include educational and cultural institutions, as well as the Orthodox Church in Russia, whose leadership currently remains loyal to Putin, while criticism and outright condemnation is already being voiced among the lower-ranking priests and monks and nuns.
Broad and diverse participation increases the likelihood that close ties exist between activists and members of important supporting pillars, so that repression often results in shifts of loyalty-when, for example, the children of oligarchs participate in antiwar demonstrations and are arrested. The close historical and cultural ties of Ukraine and Russia are of great benefit here, as there are so many reciprocal relationships. At the same time, the Kremlin’s immense control over media and the strength of disinformation campaigns are major hurdles to shifting loyalties.
Learning Nonviolent Resistance
In terms of large crowd participation, nonviolent movements have one key strength: the barriers to participation are much lower. To be sure, resisting a military invasion or an autocrat like Putin takes a lot of courage in any case, whether nonviolent or armed. But in addition to that, participation in an armed struggle requires the ability to use weapons effectively, which takes several weeks of training.
Moreover, participation in armed combat often involves the complete abandonment of a civilian life, as can be seen in the stories of fathers who, having brought their families to safety, return to the front lines for armed combat. The psychological consequences of engaging in violence, as well as ethical concerns, are also barriers that prevent people from joining armed groups.
Nonviolent resistance, on the other hand, while increased in effectiveness through training and an understanding of basic strategy, involves skills and knowledge that are much easier to learn. A survey in Ukraine showed that a significantly larger proportion of the population would be willing to participate in (even very dangerous) forms of nonviolent resistance such as sabotage or putting one’s body in the path of a tank than to shoot and possibly kill people.
The behavior of the parties to the conflict also plays an important role in the success or failure of a resistance movement. Successful movements manage to use repression to gain sympathy and generate more participation from previously uninvolved parties. The solidarity of the global public and also of many people in Russia demonstrates this so-called backfire effect.
Conversely, repression can also encourage a movement to use violence itself or to escalate violence, which would result in a perceived equivalence and a weakening of the backfire effect. Attempts to divide can also have disastrous effects.
Is There a Need for a New Peace Ethic?
The empirical work of Chenoweth and Stephan sparked a wave of new research on the dynamics of civil resistance that enriches our understanding and informs the praxis of social movement. In the process, findings are always revised, or new questions arise, as is common in academic research. One of the most hotly debated questions, for example, is what role foreign support has on a nonviolent movement’s chances of success. While armed groups are mostly dependent on foreign governments for arms and training, nonviolent movements seem to be more likely to be weakened by foreign sponsorship, as they can be portrayed as remote agents by the regime. This question has direct implications for peace ethics.
In light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is there a need for a new peace ethic? Critics of the “nonviolent turn” in the Protestant Church in Germany’s peace ethic repeatedly accuse the insistence on nonviolent options as unrealistic or “ivory tower.” In contrast, I argue that the debate should take more account of empirical studies of peace and conflict, as well as of the work of critical security studies scholars which, unfortunately, have so far received little attention in the current discussion, or have been presented in a consciously or unconsciously distorted way.
Part of this problem lies also with the peace movement itself. All too often, there is only talk of preventive or post-conflict measures as well as diplomacy. We rarely talk about effective nonviolent ways of dealing with conflict and asserting oneself through the concepts of nonviolent resistance. A commendable exception is the initiative “Rethinking Security” by the Protestant Church in Baden (EKIBA), which presents the concept of social defense in detail and has made an important contribution to its dissemination.
Johannes Fischer and others often invoke Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s structure of responsible living, according to which there can be situations in which we can only be guilty. This they turn against the “cotton candy world” of the peace logic, which supposedly refuses to acknowledge the inevitability of conflict. It does not follow, however, that militarization is the most responsible choice, either for the people of Ukraine now or in the long run for Europe, Russia, and the world. Chenoweth and Stephan are well aware of the dilemma: they repeatedly make clear that nonviolent movements can and do fail. However, compared to armed movements, they fail less often and with less disastrous consequences.
In other words, enough dilemmas remain once we have eliminated the apparent dilemma of whether violence or nonviolent approaches have higher chances of success. Among these dilemmas is the question of what we can really do to strengthen nonviolent resistance to Putin in Ukraine and Russia, given that overt support could play into Putin’s propaganda, namely, that any criticism of him is controlled remotely by the West.
Economic sanctions also raise questions. While they hollow out the pillar of Putin’s ability to pay, they affect the entire nation. The more specifically targeted they are at certain individuals in Putin’s inner circle, the better. But again, there may be a reverse backfire effect that binds people closer to Putin, especially since much of economic life is built on his favor.
Instead of negative repression, the EU’s economic power could also be used to offer Russian soldiers one-time payments and a work visa to the EU, for example, reinforcing opportunities for desertion and undermining of military power that is already beginning, as the conservative Polish Member of the European Parliament Radek Sikorski has called for.
Another critical question is how nonviolent resistance and conventional military defense affect each other. Chenoweth and Stephan’s analyses contradict the prevailing view that nonviolent movements are successful only because of the threat scenario of an armed group. Conversely, the question arises whether military defense does not precisely prevent major shifts in loyalty. For example, Russian soldiers may not desert despite their doubts because they are not sure whether they will be welcomed with open arms by Ukrainians.
Experience shows that the longer a conflict lasts, the more the fronts harden, mutual dehumanization sets in and the respective sacrifices already made are used to justify continuing the conflict. How will the passage of time (and the arms shipments that then arrive) affect the coexistence of armed and nonviolent resistance? These are real questions that should have implications for our actions, but for which there are no clear, let alone completely morally sound, answers.
Questioning the Myth of Redemptive Violence
I agree with the critics of a “naive” peace ethic that the given dilemmas cannot be a reason not to act. It is just that this action should be based on the best knowledge available and not instinctually on the basis of outdated dogmas. Action can also be the renunciation of forms of support that make the struggle for Ukrainian independence more likely to fail. However, such renunciation should be accompanied by guarantees of political asylum for Russian and Ukrainian democracy activists and deserting soldiers from both sides, and long-term promotion of civilian peacebuilding, including strategies of nonviolent defense through training, safe houses, etc. in Ukraine and the rest of the world. This would be a much more effective use of 100 billion Euros in special funds and 2% of Germany’s GDP than rearmament, which promises security but fuels conflict and risks giving additional power to anti-democratic forces in Germany as well.
The same Bonhoeffer whose unfinished ethical manuscript is so often used to legitimize rearmament said in his meditation at the Fanö Peace Conference: “There is no peace on the road to security. Peace must be dared!” Empirical research proves Bonhoeffer right that the pursuit of military security all too often weakens itself, while nonviolent resistance has a high chance of success.
Nevertheless, resistance remains a gamble that can also fail. Perhaps the renewed upsurge of military violence is our chance to break with the myth of redemptive violence. In addition to the urgently needed re-commitment to a rapid energy transition as part of a peace policy, we can promote with all our strength courageous and creative forms of nonviolent resistance, rather than offering a peace-ethic blessing to the militarization of Europe. To this end, we can be encouraged by the ongoing civil, non-violent resistance in Ukraine and Russia.
Benjamin Isaak-Krauß is pastor of a Mennonite congregation in Frankfurt and a board member of the international human rights organization Community Peacemaker Teams. He studied theology and peace in Heidelberg and Elkhart (USA) and is involved in various non-violent movements.