Nonviolent resistance is the only thing that will ultimately save Ukraine

By: Bill Galvin, PPF Activist Council Member and Counseling Coordinator at the Center on Conscience & War

I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. I have known since then that violence and war do not solve ANYTHING. Living in a militarized culture, I have often felt like I was the only one who saw that. (What keeps me grounded and sane is being connected to very good networks like PPF.) 

As tensions were escalating before Russia attacked Ukraine, it seemed to me that Biden’s public response was just escalating the tensions. (I believe there may have been behind the scenes diplomacy attempting to diffuse the tensions, but I don’t know for sure. Regardless, Biden’s public declarations would have undermined such efforts.) At least he is clear that he doesn’t want this war to expand into a US/Russia conflict that could go nuclear, unlike some in Congress. This should inspire all of us to recommit to working to eliminate nuclear weapons, and reinstate the Iran nuclear deal. (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.)

But I wonder what would have happened if Biden had responded in a more diplomatic and conciliatory tone, rather than moving US military forces and weaponry closer to Russia’s border.

I have worked to support conscientious objectors throughout my life. In recent weeks, 2 of them have had their hearings. Both of them said at their hearing, “The war must end NOW!”

One of them worked at the NSA and had access to classified information until he submitted his CO application. He knows a lot about Ukraine. He believed that diplomacy could avert a war (the day before the war began) and continues to believe that diplomacy is possible for ending the war.

He told me as the war was beginning that it would be short because there was no way that the Ukrainian military could match the Russian military. I know that Russia’s army has performed more poorly than anyone expected, but that’s not the point here. If Russia chooses to crush Ukraine’s military, it can.

The western media is enamored with President Zelenskyy for his public resistance to Russia. However, that violent resistance has prolonged the violence, and increased the death toll, as well as devastation throughout Ukraine. Although we have heard some about the nonviolent resistance to the invasion in both Russia and Ukraine, I’ve seen almost nothing that explicitly questions Ukraine’s military response, even from advocates for peace. The real strength of Ukraine is the unwillingness of the people to accept Russian rule. 

So rather than saying, “Nonviolent resistance is also good and worth supporting” I am of the opinion that nonviolent resistance is the only thing that will ultimately save Ukraine. I believe there is much more nonviolent resistance happening than we here in this country know about, and even the corporate media that loves to beat the drums of war has reported on some of it.

Nonviolent war resisters in the streets of Ukraine (Content Warning: there are gunshots in the video, no one is wounded)

I will be forever grateful to Dr William Klein, who, in my first semester at Warren Wilson College required us to read excerpts from The Ways and Power of Love by Pitirim Sorokin. It opened my eyes to the power of nonviolence. I learned how nonviolent resistance even worked in some instances against Hitler’s army. And later I learned about the work of Gene Sharp, who has documented how over the last century or so, nonviolent revolutions have been more successful at creating just and democratic societies than violent revolutions. But these things never get discussed by the talking heads fueling the fans for war.

Sorokin was born a peasant in Russia in 1889, was strongly influenced by Tolstoy and because of his political activism was imprisoned by both the tsar as well as the Bolsheviks, who sentenced him to death.  Somehow he was released from prison and was able to emigrate to the US. He learned from these experiences, and he went on to write, “Hate begets hate, violence engenders violence, hypocrisy is answered by hypocrisy, war generates war, and love creates love.” (He founded the Sociology Department at Harvard, is highly regarded by social conservatives, and has been quoted by Mike Pence.) 

Ukraine is not allowing men between the ages of 18 and 60 to leave the country with their families, because it expects them to stay and fight. 68,000 have petitioned the government to allow men to leave the country, and the government is ignoring that call. Russia’s conscientious objector provisions are problematic (as are CO provisions almost everywhere) but at least they exist. Friends House (Quaker) in Moscow provides help to Russian conscientious objectors. The Orthodox Peace Fellowship is translating information about conscientious objection into Russian and doing their best to circulate it throughout Russia. And the leader of the Ukrainian pacifist movement is alive and active in Kyiv. But the US media focuses on the obscene amount of military weaponry that the Biden administration is sending to Ukraine.

The leader of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement reports everyone there is being indoctrinated with militarism, any objection is considered criminal intent, people are bullied if they call for peace, and 16,000 have been sentenced for avoiding conscription or registration for conscription. 

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr had it right when he said, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. . . .Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. The beauty of nonviolence is that in its own way and in its own time it seeks to break the chain reaction of evil.”

So I’m longing for a way to express this and be heard in our war mongering culture.

Imagine…if, instead of rallying his country to arms President Zelenskyy had rallied his country to welcome the Russian troops with open arms, feed them, provide them with medical care if needed, allow them to use their phones to call home (as some did without the urging of their leader), and say, “Welcome to UKRAINE. We are not Russia, but we wish you no ill will.” The charisma of Zelenskyy would have ensured that this response by Ukrainians would be even more widespread than it has been. 

We don’t know what would have happened. But I believe there would have been far less bloodshed and destruction, and the solidarity of the Ukrainian people in refusing to accept Moscow’s rule would mean that Russia really couldn’t control Ukraine.

I believe in the power of nonviolent resistance to the core of my being. I believed in it back when I faced my draft board during the Vietnam War, and I believe in it now. Dr. King called it “soul force.” Gandhi called it “satyagraha” which translates as truth force. It’s also what Jesus taught.