People around the world are protesting the Russian invasion. Will their protests work?

A protester holds a Ukrainian flag during a demonstration against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, next to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on March 13. (Christian Mang/Reuters)
A protester holds a Ukrainian flag during a demonstration against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, next to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on March 13. (Christian Mang/Reuters)

As the war in Ukraine enters a third week, protests against the Russian invasion are taking place all around the world. Can people power influence the course of this war? Those facing down overwhelming military force using unarmed resistance face long odds — protesters aren’t likely to immediately end the war in Ukraine or alter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political calculus at home.

However, 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. Let’s look at the three theaters in which civil resistance is ongoing.

How Ukrainians are resisting

In Ukraine, alongside armed defense, civilians have also engaged in various forms of unarmed resistance to the invasion. This has included large-scale marches and demonstrations in cities under attack, road blockades to prevent tanks and other armored vehicles from accessing towns and critical infrastructure, removing road signs, direct verbal confrontations with Russian soldiers, seizing Russian military vehicles and more.

The stiff resistance reflects long-standing attitudes in Ukraine. Prior surveys revealed a large majority of Ukrainians were willing to use precisely these tactics in the event of a Russian invasion.

Does this resistance matter? Yes — citizen efforts like road blockades and acts of sabotage can help to delay the progress of the invading army. These delays can be important: they can confuse and disorient invading forces, create logistical barriers and break down enemy morale. Crucially, delays can also buy civilians precious time to flee, to coordinate humanitarian relief or to regroup with loved ones — potentially saving lives.

Civilian resistance can also tamp down violence in local areas by eliciting defections or desertions among foot soldiers who are unwilling to follow through on brutal orders. Civilian groups have sometimes “nudged” armed groups into respecting international humanitarian norms, such as the responsibility to protect civilians, on the ground.

Everyday acts of resistance can also form the basis for coordinated activities that facilitate longer-term mass mobilization. For instance, during the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the “Ten Commandments” published by the Vecerni Praha newspaper instructed ordinary Czechs and Slovaks in ways to undermine Soviet rule. Citizens’ noncooperation with Soviet rule and the building of underground institutions were pivotal in developing an oppositional culture, shared democratic identity and capacity for mass mobilization during the Velvet Revolution two decades later. In Odessa, musicians’ impromptu outdoor performances in the midst of the current invasion conjure this defiant, oppositional spirit.

And persistent nonviolent resistance can elicit sympathy and support from abroad — including within the invading country itself.

What about Russian citizens?

Because of the personalist nature of the regime in Russia, Putin has effectively tied his own political survival to the fate of the war in Ukraine. That makes any antiwar mobilization exceptionally high stakes and helps explain Putin’s total crackdowns against protest, expression and independent media.

Every government’s policies and survival depend on support from key pillars — the business community, economic elites, political elites, state media, security forces, cultural and religious authorities, celebrities, athletes, civil servants and the like. It’s impossible to predict where and when those loyalties begin to shift. People living under dictatorships often hide their true views of the government until they see sufficient safety in numbers to publicly resist.

Research suggests that mass protest is what makes political elites begin to recalibrate — protests have often been necessary (though not sufficient) to loosen autocrats’ grips on power. Since people tend to look to others for signs that government support is weakening, large-scale protests may not happen even when an autocrat and his policies are broadly unpopular.

Yet Russians opposed to the invasion of Ukraine have already protested in major Russian cities, and many have been arrested. In one recent survey about 30 percent of Russians stated they either oppose the war or are on the fence (13 percent did not answer the question) — a sizable number in a country whose opposition has been largely sidelined in recent years.

That said, the majority of Russians still appear to support both the invasion and Putin’s hold on power — Putin supporters have begun displaying the pro-war “Z” symbol, for instance. If opposition within Russia continues to manifest through mass protest and other forms of defiance, expect to see pro-Putin gatherings defending the “legitimacy” of Putin’s war. Autocrats often use pro-government protests when they feel politically threatened. Putin has done so in the past — but his government hasn’t felt the need to mobilize pro-war rallies in Russia to date.

Global solidarity produces more than symbolic support

Although it may seem like global protests against the Russian invasion are only symbolic gestures, the emerging worldwide grass-roots coalition to end this war matters.

First, such transnational action can often yield important impacts, keeping the issue at the top of the global agenda and shaping a clear moral narrative. Grass-roots groups also provide humanitarian assistance and supply opposition groups with material and technical assistance. Global citizen-led networks put pressure on international institutions, multinational corporations and governments to take action.

Second, antiwar protests in unlikely places — including China — could lead to the further isolation and demoralization of Russia’s pro-war elite. Third, global outrage and resistance to military aggression demonstrates that many people around the world still accept the global norm against conquest. Mass protest signals that people are willing to accept some costs for upholding this norm — and may demand that their governments uphold it, too.

And some experts argue that mass civilian mobilization and noncooperation can actually deter foreign invasion. Lithuania incorporated this “civilian-based defense” strategy in its National Security Strategy in 2014. It’s not clear whether such capacities fit into the calculus of would-be aggressors. But mass protests in the Baltics represent more than just solidarity with Ukrainians — they also signal a capacity and willingness for full-scale civilian-based defense if Russia tries to invade these countries, too.

Don’t underestimate nonviolent resistance

One reason Putin decided to invade Ukraine was precisely because nonviolent resistance has, in the past, proven effective in thwarting his efforts to turn Ukraine and other post-Soviet republics into puppet governments. After all, people-power movements toppled pro-Russian governments in Ukraine in 2004 and 2014, after which Russia annexed Crimea and increasingly pursued military means against Ukraine. Putin does not underestimate the potential of mass unarmed resistance to interfere with his plans. Observers should not discount it either.

Erica Chenoweth (@EricaChenoweth) is a professor at Harvard University, where they direct the Nonviolent Action Lab at Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. They co-host the award-winning blog Political Violence @ a Glance. Twitter

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