Why Civil Resistance May Not Work: Geopolitics and the Effectiveness of Ukraine’s Nonviolent Protests

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015


Memorial ribbons in the Maidan in Kiev. Photo courtesy of Lydia Tomkiw.

The movement that overthrew former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 offers a valuable case study for assessing the theoretical claims about the success of both violent and nonviolent tactics. Ukrainian resistance initially progressed according to the theoretical expectations of nonviolent protests, bringing about broad-based participation, loyalty shifts, international support, and greater resilience among the protesters.[i] The Ukrainian movement’s turn to violence from non-violence offers an opportunity for a side-by-side comparison of nonviolent techniques against violent ones in the same country and temporal context rather than comparing cases of violence and nonviolence that are from different countries or time periods. Nonetheless, it is important to note that this is a single case, which may be idiosyncratic and may not necessarily speak to a broader pattern.

In a recent groundbreaking study entitled Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan argue that nonviolence is likely to be a successful mode of coercion: Not only are nonviolent campaigns capable of extracting concessions from the target regime, be they domestic, repressive governments or occupying forces, but that they can do so more effectively than violent movements.[ii] These authors argue that nonviolent movements can be effective because they do not require protesters to compromise their nonviolent morals and religious principles and are often seen as less likely to come at a cost of life. The result is broader-based participation. Also, nonviolent movements may bring about loyalty shifts from the elites who may otherwise be inclined to support the regime. And finally, these movements can encourage greater international and external support. In sum, “civil resistance enhances citizenship skills and societal resilience in ways that elude armed campaigns”.[iii]

The protests that started in Kyiv on 21 November 2013 were initially non-violent. At first, the crowd amounted to a few hundred people opposing the government’s rejection of a trade agreement with the European Union (EU), but the number of protesters increased quickly, attracting broad-based participation and spreading public anger toward the government. The protesters continued to demonstrate peacefully and call for the strengthening of relations between Ukraine and the West, especially the EU.

The nonviolent campaign, however, did not succeed in accomplishing its aims of closer ties with the EU. This is not to say that the movement had no impact. An important result was eliciting a large offer of economic aid from Russia on 17 December 2013, which included $15 billion in loans and discounted natural gas prices. This very sizable aid package represented a critical lifeline for the failing economy, plagued by persistent and long-standing weakness. However, the Russian aid was also contingent on the Ukrainian government of then President Victor Yanukovych refusing the demands of the opposition. In fact, once the Ukrainian government accepted the Russian offer, it moved aggressively to quash the protest movement. For example, the government prohibited tents, stages, or amplifiers in public places, specifically targeting the protesters in Kyiv’s Independence Square, where such a stage was installed as the focal point of the protests. In late December 2013 and early January 2014, the government’s intimidation of the press also intensified, culminating with police brutality against key journalists seen as supportive of the opposition. Although the authorities’ oppressive measures failed to quash the movement, leading the Russian aid to be retracted, they did have an impact on the tactics of the opposition’s campaign.

The subsequent turn to violence among the protesters was in part motivated by the lack of political change and in part was a response to the Ukrainian authorities’ more extensive use of violence. In mid-January 2014, the protesters began to fire shots at police and security forces and engaged in other forms of violent unrest, such as lighting cars on fire. The political impact of the violent protests was felt immediately. Some of the long-standing demands of the movement, which included removing the existing President Yanukovych from office, were domestically met almost on the spot. The parliament passed a resolution with 328 supporting votes to impeach the president, who subsequently fled the country. In addition, a key opposition figure, Yulia Tymoshenko, was released from jail. She was jailed under Yanukovych’s term in a move that was widely perceived as politically motivated.

However, the Russian military invaded Crimea, at the time, a majority Russian-speaking province of Ukraine only within weeks of the protests turning violent. The invasion subsequently led to a Russian annexation of the province. The cost to Ukraine was substantial, including a significant loss of population, as well as national assets such as major industrial areas, important warm water ports and key military assets. Furthermore, it marked the beginning of the armed struggle in Ukraine that has been destabilizing the country since.

The Ukrainian case largely refutes the theoretical expectations about the effectiveness of nonviolent movements. Chenoweth and Stephen’s definition of effectiveness follows political scientist Robert Pape who “considered a ‘success’ a campaign [which] met two conditions: the full achievement of its stated goals (regime change, anti-occupation, or secession) within a year of the peak of activities, and a discernible effect on the outcome, such that the outcome was a direct result of the campaign’s activities.”[iv] Not only were the nonviolent protests largely unsuccessful in achieving their stated goal of closer ties to the EU, the more immediate and substantive concessions the protesters obtained from the Ukrainian government came as a result of the violent resistance. Nonviolence failed very quickly, even if violence may have also failed in the long run.

Once the Ukrainian government accepted the terms of the Russian aid package, there was little the protesters were able to achieve through further nonviolent demonstrations. Turning to violence offered the protesters an opportunity to resurrect the failing movement. It may have been analogous to pressing the reset button. And indeed, once the campaign switched to more violent means, the previously intransigent Ukrainian authorities became open to meeting the protesters’ demands.

This case suggests that failing nonviolent campaigns may alter tactics to violence in order to increase their chances of success. Violence—not nonviolence—may ultimately work in these circumstances. This does not necessarily mean that violence is more successful than nonviolence, all things being equal, but rather that it can succeed once nonviolence has already been shown not to work. Should nonviolence be expected to fail, switching tactics to violence may offer a new chance at success.

Indeed, any successes the violent campaign in Ukraine achieved must be viewed through the lens of the subsequent Russian involvement and must take into account not only the interactions between the protesters and the domestic government, but also relations between the domestic and foreign actors. From this perspective, the success of the violent movement seems marginal. The opposition may not have even wanted this success had it known that it could – even if indirectly – contribute to the loss of Crimea and the subsequent destabilization of the country. However, the protesters may not have anticipated these events when they turned to violence and at the time, the change in tactics may have offered a real chance at accomplishing the broader aims of the campaign.

Ukraine presents an interesting case for the study of nonviolent opposition precisely because the circumstances of the case are so difficult. The failure may be better attributed to the geopolitics than any strategy adopted by the protesters. However, the failure of nonviolence in this case is masked by the subsequent adoption and failure of the more violent tactics. If nonviolent campaigns more generally resort to violence because they face failure, the success of nonviolence may be overstated. However, developing theoretical expectations based on this case alone is only a first step. More extensive data analysis is needed if we are to understand and predict the effectiveness of violent protests that follow nonviolent campaigns. Nonetheless, if the Ukrainian case is a harbinger of cases to come, it warns policymakers of a more violent future at least for some failing cases of nonviolent civil resistance.


[i] Maria Stephens and Erica Chenoweth (2011), Why Civil Resistance Works, (New York: Columbia University Press).

[ii] Ibid, 13.

[iii]Ibid, 227.

[iv] As quoted in ibid, 13.


Unislawa Williams, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Spelman College. Her research interests are in International Relations, International Organization, International Finance, Political Economy, and Political Methodology.

Mya Havard is a student at Spelman College, majoring in mathematics.