Javelins and NLAWs kill tanks. But while these NATO-supplied weapons destroy Russian vehicles, Ukrainians are also disrupting armored advances with their own bodies in bold acts of nonviolent resistance. With social media, international audiences have witnessed the sieges of cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol and Ukrainians’ personal accounts of the war at a ground level. Nonviolent resistance to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began just as tanks rolled across the border.
In occupied cities like Kherson and Melitopol, Ukrainian civilians continue to nonviolently resist the invading Russian forces. While much analysis has already examined the potential role of an armed Ukrainian insurgency in resisting Russia aggression, the ongoing efforts of Ukrainian civil resistance merit specific attention. Comprising much more than marches and public protests in the newly occupied cities, civil resistance ties down occupying troops and diverts Russian resources. A properly trained and organized nonviolent effort will serve as a critical complement to the Ukrainian defenders seeking to further disrupt Russian advances in the Donbas, as well as areas to the south where Russian forces are having to contend with both a restive population and Ukrainian counterattacks.
Hjemmefronten: Norwegian Civil Resistance as a Model
To understand how successful a civil resistance campaign can be, consider Norway’s efforts during World War II. Following a rapid military defeat in just sixty-two days in 1940, Norway fell under Nazi occupation and the nominal control of collaborator Vidkun Quisling. But the Norwegians continued to resist, ultimately tying down more than 460,000 German troops. In Norway, early armed resistance lacked significant numbers, but the civilian population began organizing itself from the start. Early campaigns focused on subversive solidarity-building, such as the symbolic wearing of paper clips and other innocuous items that initially did not catch German attention.
The multiyear effort of the Norwegians to disrupt Nazi control serves as just one example of the diverse ways that civil resistance can take shape in the context of a foreign military occupation. While Norwegians resisted alongside a small armed component, Ukraine’s armed forces are still very much the main effort in repelling Russian advances. Still, the case of Nazi-occupied Norway offers several lessons in how clever information operations, significant workers’ strikes, and close coordination with armed resistance can stymie foreign occupation.
Information was crucial to Norwegian resistance. Underground newspapers circulated throughout the country, countering Nazi propaganda and coordinating collective actions. While these actions did not directly disrupt German lines of effort, they served as a crucial first step in organizing networks of Norwegians around a common goal of resisting the occupation. Such networks would escalate their actions over the course of the war.
Through these underground newspapers and networks, leaders organized countrywide resistance actions that prevented the Quisling regime from turning Norway into a passive territory of the Third Reich. Notable instances of resistance included a countrywide teacher’s strike against the implementation of Nazi curriculum in Norwegian schools and a coordinated effort by networks of church groups to prevent the introduction of Nazi ideology into Norwegian value systems. Similar efforts by teachers in occupied Ukraine may well prove necessary to counter Russian efforts at suppressing Ukrainian culture and identity. Likewise, splits between Orthodox churches in Ukraine and Russia mean religious authorities in Ukraine can help to counter the religious narratives pushed by pro-Putin religious leaders in Moscow.
Importantly, the Norwegian civil resistance kept in close coordination with the armed component, allowing for a more unified effort. Such armed resistance, remembered in popular culture by the dramatic sabotage of German heavy water production facilities by teams of Office of Strategic Services–trained Norwegian commandos, also consisted of thousands of Norwegians sabotaging military infrastructure. In the end, the defiance of the Norwegian people made an occupation of their homeland an uneasy one. Their story would even inspire author John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down, a fictional account of an escalating civil resistance movement that would later be translated and covertly distributed throughout occupied Europe.
Ukrainian Civil Resistance Today
How might a similar Ukrainian civil resistance take shape? In many parts of the country under occupation, community protests both demonstrate Ukrainian resolve and counter narratives that Russian soldiers are being welcomed as liberators. Extensive research has already examined civil resistance movements as a whole. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, for example, presents three broad categories of resistance tactics: narrative, institutional, and disruptive. Narrative forms of resistance include awareness-raising or community-building efforts, focused on the persuasion of domestic and international audiences. Institutional forms comprise acts within the defined political spaces of a society, such as running an oppositional political campaign or rallying voters against proposed legislation. Lastly, resistance is classified as disruptive when it interrupts the normal functioning of society, such as occupations of highways, strikes, boycotts, and a myriad of other tactics. While few opportunities for institutional forms of resistance exist in the context of a foreign occupation, Ukrainians are committing acts of narrative-based and disruptive resistance.
These forms of Ukrainian resistance produce significant meaning both for the immediate local audiences and, thanks to social media, the rest of Ukraine and the world. Reaching Ukrainian diaspora communities is especially important, as they will continue to be a critical component of the resistance, keeping international attention focused on the conflict and facilitating grassroots support. The Norwegian diaspora during World War II also played an important role, as such groups provided the volunteers that would later participate in sabotage raids against the noted heavy water facilities.
For those outside Russia’s strictly controlled media environment, the narrative-focused acts of resistance by Ukrainians have already become widespread. Stories of civilian defiance like that of the “sunflower lady” have gone viral, making the plant an early symbol of the war effort. Beyond the impacts these acts have on the global stage, such protests may produce a measurable impact on local security forces. The anger and confrontational protests of Ukrainians in many cases shattered some Russian troops’ illusions of a hero’s welcome. Several Russian POWs noted this stark contrast with their prewar understanding and the impact it had on unit morale, leading some to abandon their attacks or surrender outright. Norwegians created similar effects through the “ice front” campaign, a societal cold shoulder to occupying Germans. Refusals to speak or interact with Germans or collaborators created a social quarantine. Norwegian refusals to even sit next to Germans on buses became such a nuisance that leaving one’s seat became grounds for arrest. Creating a similar environment in occupied cities where many already share a language with occupying troops would create a psychological effect and further eat away at Russian morale, while simultaneously strengthening the resolve of local communities.
Ukrainians are also demonstrating the capacity for disruptive forms of civil resistance. Social media posts early in the war documented human chains and impromptu roadblocks that slowed down or diverted Russian road movements. A much more real specter than the “Ghost of Kyiv,” Ukrainian farmers stole many abandoned Russian vehicles, making their recovery all the more difficult for any renewed offensives. Beyond these viral acts, Ukrainians possess many more ways to nonviolently interrupt the “new normal” in occupied areas. Political noncooperation, such as the refusal of civil servants to work under a new occupied government, not only deprives Russian-installed leaders of legitimacy but also removes the subject matter expertise on numerous areas of civil administration required for governance. Economic noncooperation can also make continued occupation more costly. Workers’ strikes of critical infrastructure like railways, public works, and other specialties would disrupt troop movements and make sustainment operations more difficult. In areas where poorly fed Russians have resorted to looting, a coordinated caching of foodstuffs and use of community-based exchanges would remove easy access to food and any shortcuts to keeping advancing troops fed.
Such actions are not limited solely to Ukraine; within Belarus, acts of civil resistance by railway workers significantly disrupted Russian logistics. Utilizing preexisting networks of dissidents and knowledge of local rail networks, the workers caused havoc and paralyzed the reinforcement and resupply of Russian troops advancing toward Kyiv. One Belarusian activist’s expression— “We didn’t want to kill any Russian army or Belarusian train drivers. We used a peaceful way to stop them.”—represents how civil resistance can be an effective tool despite not directly killing or injuring an occupying force. The resurgence of a Belarusian civil resistance movement that faced a violent crackdown in 2020 may well prove to be a vital front in the effort to disrupt President Alexander Lukashenko’s support for Russian military aims.
Above all, the preexisting networks of Ukrainian civil society organizations remain critical to coordinating these and other actions. Adapting to the level of violence Russian occupiers may be willing to use, these communities must develop new tactics to preserve their well-being and maintain solidarity. Tactical innovation, a fundamental component of any effective civil resistance, will depend on the creativity and collaborative capabilities of the Ukrainian people. If protests are met with overwhelming violence or repression, developing other methods of subversive resistance will be essential. During the Chilean people’s resistance against the Pinochet regime of the 1970s, violent crackdowns on public gatherings led to the use of pots-and-pans protests from balconies; these cacerolazo protests echoed through cities like Santiago, producing a solidarity-building effect for citizens while avoiding violent responses from security forces. Much like those Chileans or Norwegians during World War II, civil society entities like church groups, community organizations, trade unions, or others will be vital to developing new strategies.
A Role for Special Operations Forces
While at this point the preponderance of US assistance has been limited to the provision of lethal and humanitarian aid, there is undoubtedly a role for special operations forces to assist in the development of civil resistance in similar scenarios. As many have pointed out, American special operators have helped develop Ukrainian and other European partners’ abilities to organize and conduct armed resistance, using documents like the Resistance Operating Concept as a guide to developing a whole-of-society approach. But while special operations civil affairs units have worked to improve the citizen-resister-fighter components of these societies, more dedicated focus could and should be paid to the nonviolent forms of resistance that are available to an occupied people. Doing so before an invasion or potentially in a third-party location (or even remotely) will diversify the methods of resistance available and further stymie acts of military aggression. Indeed, recent research supports the idea that foreign support to civil resistance organizations is most effective when provided prior to peak mobilization or the climax of a crisis.
Despite polling suggesting widespread Ukrainian support for armed resistance, significant portions of any society will not resort to violence for a number of reasons. Nonviolent resistance, on the other hand, has a much lower barrier to entry. Drawing on already existing relationships with civil society organizations and community defense organizations, special operation forces can help train Ukrainians or other communities in various methods of civil resistance, including the development of parallel institutions, subversive communications aimed at occupying forces or occupied people, or the diverse forms of protest that can take place. So far, the resilience of the Ukrainian people has taken Russian forces by surprise. While nonviolence by itself is unlikely to defeat a Russian occupation, continuing this resistance under further occupation will be critical to Ukraine’s fight for survival.
Captain Danny Moriarty is a civil affairs officer currently attending graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, researching civil resistance within the Department of Geography and the Environment. He previously served in the 83d Civil Affairs Battalion as a team leader and human network analysis chief and has completed deployments to Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.