Imagine a different way to defend Ukraine — a way that costs less, leads to less death and destruction, and has a chance of bringing about a revolution in Russia. It sounds good, but it’s not going to happen. It’s too late.
Let’s go back a step and look at military defence, and how it affects the psychology of enemy soldiers. Many Russian soldiers have no personal grudge against Ukraine. Indeed, many didn’t want to join the army. They were fed propaganda about the purpose of the invasion and then brought to the front lines. And what did they encounter? Ukrainian troops trying to kill them. So naturally they were going to fight back.
This is perfectly logical. The best way to turn someone into an enemy is to threaten and assault them. To make them hate you, attack and keep attacking. The process works on everyone involved in the war. Troops, commanders and civilian populations, outraged by enemy atrocities, are brought together in a common cause.
This twisted process is inherent in the system of militaries throughout the world, because militaries can be used for both attack and defence. My defence is a threat to you, and your defence is a threat to me. This is the basis for arms races. Why else do military expenditures continue even when there is little threat of war?
Imagine a plan to tempt Russian soldiers to defect, call in sick, not do their jobs, sabotage machinery or just go slow. This would be a plan to undermine their morale, make them less likely to perform their duties and ultimately undermine their willingness to support the Russian state.
How about this? The Ukraine government solicits support from allies to offer an attractive package to any Russian soldier who defects. Perhaps a job, a house or a million euros. That might be tempting, especially to young conscripts looking for a way to avoid killing and being killed. (Dave Grossman in his well-known book On Killing showed that most front-line soldiers do not fire their rifles at the enemy unless they have been given special training to overcome their natural reluctance to kill.)
A million euros for each defecting soldier? It sounds impossibly expensive. But even if one hundred thousand soldiers defected, the cost would be less than the cost of the Ukraine war.
There’s another important part of this plan. The threat of hurting Russian soldiers needs to be removed. The solution, this time, saves money: get rid of the Ukraine military. Then there would be only civilians, who pose no personal danger to Russian soldiers.
This would mean the country has no army. Surely that is a prescription for being taken over by any aggressive neighbouring state. No military defence means certain defeat, doesn’t it?
Since World War II, countries in Central America — think, for example, of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala — have been plagued by repressive governments, civil wars, criminal violence and even genocide, leading to massive emigration. There is one shining exception: Costa Rica. In 1948, its army was abolished. Since then, it hasn’t been involved in any wars. Instead, it has experienced decades of peace and prosperity, with an enviable life expectancy.
Not having a military seems to have helped Costa Rica to thrive, in many ways. One example isn’t proof, but it does raise the question of whether Ukraine might have been safer without an army.
Getting rid of the army is only one step towards improving security. Just as important is preparing to defend against attack without using force. There is much that can be done. Citizens can learn foreign languages so they can easily communicate with potential invading soldiers. They can learn about cultures, to better understand how to communicate effectively. They can build up relationships with citizens in other countries. With this sort of preparation, it becomes harder for any foreign government to convince its population to support aggression.
There’s more. Industry could be decentralised so there are no easy targets. A big power plant, when put out of commission, leads to blackouts. In contrast, energy efficiency and local renewable energy sources offer meagre targets. When most of the population can get around by walking and cycling, there is less heavy industry vulnerable to attack.
Communication systems could be set up to support resistance to aggression, enabling defenders to talk with each other, with attackers and with people around the world. Citizens could be prepared to deal with propaganda, disinformation, fake videos and other means of deception, and have practised how to prove authenticity in their own messages. They would have developed several independent publicly-shared intelligence operations, monitoring potential threats and opportunities.
Put these and other measures in place and the result is a system of defence. It has been called social defence, nonviolent defence, civilian-based defence and defence by civil resistance.
A Czechoslovak story
In 1968, the Soviet Union still existed, and it held sway over the Communist-controlled countries in Eastern Europe. In Czechoslovakia, the Communist government introduced reforms to ease heavy-handed repression and respond to popular demands. This flowering of enlightenment was a threat to the Soviet government, which in August invaded Czechoslovakia with a Warsaw-Pact force of half a million soldiers. The leaders of the Czechoslovak military, which was prepared to defend against an attack from the capitalist countries to the west, decided armed resistance was futile and did not act. Instead, there was a spontaneous unarmed people’s resistance.
Czechoslovaks had learned Russian in school. They talked to the invading soldiers, who had been told they were there to stop a capitalist takeover, saying them “We are socialists too.” This process of fraternisation led many of the invading troops to be “unreliable” and withdrawn. Meanwhile, people removed street signs and house numbers to make it harder for the invaders to track down leaders of the resistance. The radio network — built for military use — was used to support morale, provide information about troops and counsel against using violence. When the Soviets brought in jamming equipment, the radio raised the alarm and the train was stranded on a siding.
The active resistance lasted only a week because Czechoslovak leaders unwisely made concessions. Even so, the Soviets were unable to impose a puppet government for eight months. Meanwhile, Western governments did little to aid the Czechoslovak resisters.
Military personnel go through intensive training to become effective in their jobs in front-line fighting, surveillance, intelligence, weapons development and every other aspect of a high-functioning force. The same applies to developing a system in which citizens have the skills and organisation to deter and defend against aggression without arms.
Would you judge the potential of military defence by referring to an army in which the soldiers had no training, there was no planning and no industry infrastructure? Of course not. Likewise, it’s inappropriate to judge the potential of unarmed citizen defence by looking only at the Czechoslovak example, as promising as it is. The real test is when a society is fully prepared and trained to defend itself without arms.
Even after the war started, there are ways Ukrainians have resisted nonviolently and ways to encourage Russian soldiers to defect. But such important efforts are undermined by Ukrainian military resistance.
An untried option
So why hasn’t it happened? Why haven’t governments moved to educate all citizens in nonviolent defence methods, and set up training for anyone interested? The benefits are obvious enough: reduced military expenditure, an empowered citizenry, and technological systems resilient against both external and internal threats.
No one has carried out a comprehensive study into why governments show so little interest in unarmed defence systems. A plausible explanation is that governments don’t want to empower their populations with skills to resist aggression, because those same skills could be used against the government and against groups in charge of the economy.
If an aggressor tried to take control of a factory, the workers could be prepared to resist by shutting down production. Eminent peace researcher Johan Galtung suggested that a factory could be designed with a crucial piece of equipment that could be disabled in an emergency, with a replacement available only from another country. Coercing the workers then would not get the factory working again. But designing factories this way would put a lot of power in the hands of workers. No wonder managers and governments prefer military defence.
Every single aspect of a nonviolent defence system requires giving power and responsibility to ordinary citizens, in agriculture, transport, health and education. That’s the lesson from long-term unarmed struggles in Kosovo and Palestine. It is also, plausibly, why governments do not want to build their citizens’ capacity to resist. Instead, citizens are treated as children who need protection provided by professionals, namely by governments and militaries.
For years, leading nonviolence researcher Gene Sharp tried to promote civilian-based defence. He tried to convince US military and government leaders that this sort of defence would be more effective, but his efforts, despite being lauded, had little impact. Governments, least of all the US government, are simply not interested in these sorts of alternatives, even to investigate them or run experiments to test their feasibility.
Ukraine, like all other major governments, relied on military defence. We will never know whether a different sort of defence system, one based on citizen resistance without arms, would have been more effective in deterring and resisting invasion. All we know is that military defence is the standard model, and so far it seems to be part of the problem.
Brian Martin, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to Tonya Agostini and Julia LeMonde for helpful comments.