The war in Ukraine is a human and ecological catastrophe. We have failed to create the social conditions for the prevention of large-scale violence. We have failed to escape the cycle of threats, blame and retribution that escalates hostility and distrust. We have failed to acknowledge the relevant root causes and responsibility for harm from key stakeholders. We have failed to engage in diplomacy that prioritizes the dignity and human needs of the key stakeholders, with a willingness to compromise, and a focus on saving lives. We have failed to adequately train people in nonviolent conflict, resistance and civilian-based defense. We cannot afford to make these mistakes again.
Yet, despite all these failures, there are still signs of hope. A variety of creative, courageous, nonviolent ways of resistance are being activated and could be scaled up by Ukrainians and others.
Ukrainians have been blocking convoys and tanks, and standing their ground even with warning shots 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 in Kherson against becoming a breakaway state. Ukrainians have fraternized with Russian soldiers to lower their morale and stimulate defections. There’s been humanitarian assistance (with Orthodox priests stepping up as escorts) and caring for displaced persons by the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.
Russians have participated in numerous antiwar protests, and around 15,000 have been arrested. Journalists have interrupted and resigned from state TV. Nearly 100,000 Russians from a variety of sectors have signed petitions to end the war. Russians from all parts of society have spoken out against the war — from members of the military and connected to the foreign ministry to members of the Russian oil industry and billionaires, as well as nearly 300 Russian Orthodox clerics . Meanwhile, over 100 soldiers have refused to take part.
Forms of nonviolent resistance through external support include the outpouring of public statements by key political leaders, as well as reducing the flow of money to the aggressor — via freezing bank accounts, reducing online media monetization, reducing trade, reducing use of Russian fossil fuels and blocking ships of Russian goods. Other forms include supporting the antiwar protesters in Russia, disrupting the technology systems of the aggressor and interrupting disinformation. Another critical form has been coalition building, activating key civil society leaders (including athletes, religious figures and those in the business community), and extensive humanitarian assistance along with caring for refugees.
There have been some moments where key stakeholders, including Russians, have been re-humanized by using labels and narratives that communicate complexity, potential transformation and common humanity. More could be done to help shift away from retributive justice and toward restorative justice, along with acknowledging responsibility for harm. There has been some sharing of educational material about nonviolent civilian-based defense and advocating our governments to resource and amplify nonviolent activism in Ukraine. Additionally, some religious leaders and others have amplified these stories of nonviolence, challenged the theological ideology supporting war, as well as challenged the role of racism and white supremacy in the conflict. Another critical practice some have offered is fasting or praying for Ukrainians as well as adversaries.
In the Washington Post, Harvard University professor Erica Chenoweth explained that research “suggests it’s also important not to underestimate how nonviolent resistance can delay or minimize killing, begin to shift the political landscape and deter future aggression.”
Below are five immediate action steps civil society, as well as Congress members and the White House, can take to move toward breaking the cycle of violence and ending the war.
1. The courageous and creative actions of nonviolent resistance being done in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere should be amplified. Like the Alliance for Peacebuilding has done, help can be offered to establish coordination hubs to provide diplomatic, legal and material assistance for such persons as well as call for others to provide resources for these civil society leaders and activists. This will lend concrete solidarity towards dynamics of nonviolent resistance that are twice as effective and 10 times more likely to lead to durable democracy.
2. Donors, governments and multilateral institutions can step up their support for unarmed civilian protection to nonviolently protect civilians. Unarmed civilian protection, or UCP, is an evidence-based strategy for the nonviolent direct protection of civilians, the reduction of localized violence, and the development of local peace infrastructures in which unarmed, trained civilians work alongside local civil society in violent conflicts. Congress directed the Secretary of State, in consultation with the USAID Administrator, to provide funds for UCP in its Explanatory Statement accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022.
3. All stakeholders, including adversaries, need to be re-humanized. This is done through the language, labels and narratives you choose to use. Although difficult, we must avoid labels such as calling persons or groups “evil,” “diabolical,” “irrational,” “thugs” or “monsters.” This doesn’t mean we agree with or justify their actions. Yet, the more we dehumanize others, the more we escalate, narrow our imagination and enable dynamics of violence.
4. Ukrainian President Zelensky should be encouraged to sign a phase one agreement with Russia to end the war. This will create space for more insightful thinking about how to address root causes and seek a more sustainable just peace. We know Russian leadership is responsible for their invasion. Yet, we have more influence on Zelensky at this point to take the moral high ground. For instance, a neutral Ukraine is likely worth it to save thousands of lives, at minimum.
5. A wave of strategic delegations or a humanitarian airlift into Ukraine to generate time and space, or peace zones, for interrupting hostilities should be considered. For example, this could include one or multiple allied countries landing huge cargo planes full of medicine and food in Ukraine. Top government (and maybe religious or other) officials would be on board. Cargo planes are not offensive fighter jets. The U.S. executed exactly such a humanitarian airlift when Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, which significantly contributed to the end of those hostilities.
Active nonviolence is not about condemning or judging people who lean toward violent resistance in really difficult situations like the one Ukrainians face. It affirms and admires their willingness to take a stand against injustice rather than to be passive. Active nonviolence is primarily about accompaniment, which can and is being done in a variety of creative, courageous, nonviolent ways by Ukrainians and others.
Drawing on a just peace framework helps us to better see these nonviolent possibilities and invites us further in their direction. It also helps us to see that violent action routinely escalates hostility, dehumanization and harm, and it creates other cycles of longer-term trauma and violence. More people could die in this dynamic. For example, Russia is now bombing more civilian areas. In turn, a just peace framework would also help us to focus on how we can break the dynamic of violence and build a more sustainable just peace. Let’s seriously consider these five steps and find a way to break free from the habits of war.