Russia’s audacious invasion of Ukraine unleashed an unprecedented wave of citizen action against the war, taking very different forms in Ukraine, the West, and in Russia. None of it is likely to end the war
soon, but if activists are able to sustain their efforts–a big if–it could make a massive impact on the conduct of the war, and even the international politics that follow.
Ukraine has quickly fielded a citizen army of resistance, visibly inspired and led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has risen to the moment in heroic fashion. The political neophyte has insisted that neither he nor his government would flee for their safety, but would fight back with whatever resources they could muster. Zelenskyy is posting frequently: statements of purpose, pictures of himself in fatigues, and pleas for support from the West. It matters, making it harder for Western leaders to ignore the war.
And Ukrainian will is much broader than the president. Ukraine’s territorial defense forces have offered weapons to any Ukrainian ready to fight, and tens of thousands have joined the fight…so far. This resistance has made the invasion and planned decapitation of the state far more difficult–and costly–than Russia anticipated.
Russia still claims massive advantages in military power. But the invasion no longer appears quick and simple.
Even more significant, every sign now is that the resistance will continue even if the government is ousted.
It’s not that toppling a government is easy, but rather, governing a resistant population in its place can be much harder.
Russia’s leadership knows this central fact–from a decade in Afghanistan, to cite one dramatic example. Americans know this as well–from two decades in Afghanistan, to cite one dramatic example. (There are many others.) The point is that if occupying and governing Ukraine–a large territory with more than 40 million people–is more difficult and costly than any security or resource benefits it provides, it will be harder to sustain.
The vigorous Ukrainian opposition–and the harsh Russian war it’s exposed–has made it a little less difficult to impost an extraordinary package of economic, political, and social sanctions in record time.
Stigmatizing the Russian state while squeezing the economy, the sanctions have brought the costs of war home to both the Russian people and the oligarchs who support Vladimir Putin’s rule. Ukraine’s resistance has helped the international community build a broader coalition, including previously neutral nations, than anyone expected, and to poke Russia more aggressively. The pokes have included an influx of weapons from Europe and North America to Ukraine’s resistance.
Sanctions cost the countries imposing them as well as those they are imposed upon. The costs of energy and food have already begun climbing in the West, and broader inflation is likely to follow. The International Energy Agency (IEA) is now considering releasing oil reserves to limit the growth of energy prices–and allow the world to continue burning fossil fuels.
The flush of attention has, for the moment, overshadowed what will surely be growing costs of sanctions in the West. Here, the expressions of support for Ukraine that have bubbled up in public demonstrations can help. Blue and yellow flags everywhere, ribbons at award ceremonies, and performances of Ukrainian music on television don’t challenge the foreign policies of the United States or allied governments, but make it a little less difficult to continue and even accelerate a sanctions regime.
The early expression of resistance to the war in Russia is far riskier than the demonstrations in the West, and requires tremendous courage. Street protests broke
out in St. Petersburg and Moscow almost immediately provoking harsh policing and thousands of arrests. Since then, protests have continued, often just an individual holding a small sign not much bigger than a piece of printer paper.
It’s far more dangerous to lodge such a protest in an authoritarian state, and activists surely know the risks they’re taking. It will be hard to keep going.
And we know that anti-war protests in democracies often fail to prevent or end military aggression, even when there are mechanisms of democratic accountability. But if the protesters can help convince authorities that their prospects are better without Vladimir Putin, they could promote dramatic change. (Think of Tahrir Square, where mass demonstrations led the Egyptian military to dump President Hosni Mubarak–and maintain their rule.)
Right now, resistance in Ukraine and protests in the West and Russia all feed each other. All of the activists are likely to face more difficultly in sustaining their efforts in the coming days–and weeks–and months. But this is how history is made.