How to Beat a Russian Occupation with Flash Mobs

Why nonviolent resistance might be the best hope for thwarting Putin's adventurism in eastern Ukraine.

As separatists in eastern Ukraine stage demonstrations and occupy government buildings, calling for Russian annexation, there is renewed anxiety about the 40,000 Russian troops massed along the border. The prospect of Russian incursion raises the question of how Ukrainians -- outnumbered, outgunned, and more than likely unsupported by Western militaries -- might be able to resist. Though there have been murmurs of Moscow's troops being met with a guerilla campaign, Ukrainians best hope for challenging Russian aggression might be to follow the same method used to oust Kiev's venally corrupt regime: civil resistance.

When Russian forces swarmed into Ukraine's Crimean peninsula for what became a military occupation and then an annexation, some opponents responded in ways that might seem unusual. In cities across Ukraine, flash mobs mimicked "dead bodies" on supermarket floors. Compatriots next to them held signs exhorting shoppers not to buy Russian products so as not to finance occupation and war. In Odessa, a flash-mob orchestra played "Ode to Joy," the European anthem, to the surprised onlookers at the city market in a melodic message supporting an alliance with the European Union rather than Russia. The videos went viral.

It may seem counterintuitive that such nonviolent resistance could successfully repel a militarily superior opponent, or that this would be Ukraine's most promising defense against having its east carved up by Russia. But evidence shows that nonviolent resistance is roughly twice as effective as armed struggle in ousting dictators and ending foreign occupations. A 2011 study [co-written by one of the authors, Maria Stephan] examined 323 violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006 and found that the nonviolent campaigns succeeded 53 percent of the time, compared to 27 percent for armed struggles, even against similarly repressive opponents.

The case for civil resistance, then, is a practical one: Not only has it been proven more effective at ousting occupying armies, it is much more likely than its violent counterpart to help consolidate democracy and peace. What's more, it does so at far lower cost than even "successful" armed resistance. Coalition building, persuasion, and negotiation, abilities that are vital for successful political engagement once transition begins, are all critically honed during civil resistance campaigns.

Today, the marches, silent demonstrations, and public appeals for unity among both Ukrainian and Russian citizens that comprised the months-long mass civil disobedience that forced Viktor Yanukovych from power in late February could, and probably should, form the basis of a national strategy to resist Russian occupation and military aggression. In Crimea, hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers marched without weapons toward Russian military contingents, blocking their base near Sevastopol and successfully forced the Russian commanders to negotiate. Though the base remained blocked, the Ukrainian soldiers and their commander became national heroes and built international sympathy for their struggle. As a result of the economic boycotts in Ukraine, some unconfirmed reports by activists say that the consumption of Russian products in the country dropped 40 percent within the first two weeks after the invasion of Crimea. Acts of resistance like this can be replicated, coordinated, and expanded into a nationwide movement that consistently raises the social, political, and economic costs of Russian presence in Ukraine, until occupation finally becomes untenable.

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Calls for Ukrainians to take up arms are growing louder both internally and from the outside. On March 18, the acting president decreed a partial mobilization of the Ukrainian armed forces, and called up reservists. The Ukrainian National Guard was also reestablished. National defense units are undergoing combat training and developing their own videos warning Russians that further invasions will be met with arms. Young Ukrainians have been circulating a Swiss Army manual that explains how to wage guerrilla warfare. Members of the small extremist Crimean Tatar fringe, now fighting with anti-government rebels in Syria, have announced that they are contemplating a return to Crimea to fight the Russians. Dangerously, some Western pundits are suggesting that the West would be more willing to help when Ukrainians showed the world their willingness to fight with weapons.

The cavalry isn't going to come, though. The United States and other NATO member nations have made it clear that a Western military response against Russia isn't likely, meaning it will largely be up to Ukrainians to defend themselves. Before taking up arms, the Ukrainians would do well to consider how to accomplish this without resorting to guerilla warfare would likely lead to massive casualties.

There are a few different ways options for civilian defense: Ukrainian civilians could completely withhold social, political, economic, and security cooperation with Russian forces in the event of an expanded occupation. The Czechs and Slovaks adopted a similar strategy after Soviet troops invaded then-Czechoslovakia in 1968, and activists even developed "Ten Commandments," in case a Soviet soldier approached: Don't know, don't care, don't tell, don't have, don't know how to, don't give, can't do, don't sell, don't show, and do nothing.

Civil resistance saved hundreds of thousands of lives, while paving the way for Czechs and Slovaks to shake off communism and build democracy. Admittedly, that struggle took years. But armed resistance has historically delivered neither faster nor better results -- research shows that the average civil resistance campaign takes two and a half years, compared to nine years for armed resistance. The relatively quick ouster of Yanukovych, furthermore, suggests that a well-organized, disciplined civil resistance campaign does not necessarily require years to succeed.

A Ukrainian civil defense strategy could be coupled with a campaign for solidarity with ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. Independent, Russian-language media could be beamed into Crimea and to southern and eastern Ukraine, with popular Ukrainians, Russians, and international celebrities using humor, music, and messages emphasizing Ukraine for all Ukrainians. They could also broadcast instructions for engaging in mass nonviolent disruption to thwart further Russian military incursions.

A Russian occupation of Ukraine would require hundreds of thousands of troops and thousands more logistics personnel who would be dependent, at least in part, on local cooperation to run the country and keep the lights on. If Ukrainian civil servants walked off their jobs, and if key industries slowed or stopped, the ongoing, frustrating burden could sap the Russian will for adventurism without the incitement of snipers and bombings, which would almost invariably lead to divisive crackdowns and reciprocal violence. Ukrainian society could start building solidarity and mutual-aid funds now to support would-be strikers.

As for external support, international allies -- governmental and non-governmental -- should increase their assistance to nonviolent Ukrainian activists in the form of small grants, technical advice, and media assistance. This is an effort that non-governmental organizations and foundations less encumbered by bureaucratic inertia should lead. Specialized peace organizations could work with their Ukrainian and Russian counterparts to interject nonviolent "peace brigades" into volatile regions of Ukraine to help maintain nonviolent posture between unarmed people and violent actors, offer protective accompaniment, and gather evidences of rights violations in case of invasion. Communication should be intensified between Ukrainian activists and those from other countries -- from Central and Eastern Europe and beyond -- who have resisted similarly repressive opponents nonviolently. 

Ukrainians will ultimately be the ones to decide whether and how to fight if Russia invades their country. But the international community should not wait for the crisis to escalate before providing support to the many Ukrainians who remain committed to nonviolent resistance. Their strategy stands the best chance to pull Ukraine back from the brink.



Kim Jong Un's Thermonuclear Dreams

What does it mean when North Korea announces it has a "new form" of nuclear testing coming soon?

In late March, when the U.N. Security Council condemned North Korea for test firing two medium-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, Pyongyang shot back, warning of "next-stage steps, which the enemy can hardly imagine" -- including "a new form of nuclear test for bolstering up its nuclear deterrence."

Golly, that sounds awfully hostile.

A "new form" of nuclear test? My thoughts immediately turned to Pyongyang's next step in its nuclear weapons development. North Korea might test a device using highly-enriched uranium (if it hasn't done that already), or start down the path toward tactical nuclear weapons or perhaps burning thermonuclear fuel. I suspect that these are their ultimate objectives, although it is hard to know Pyongyang's near- and long-term technical goals for its nuclear arsenal.

The phrasing of the statement in the original Korean, however, suggests that there is something new about how North Korea tests, not what it tests. After checking with a number of Korean speakers, the phrase appears to refer to a new form of testing, as opposed to simply a new device.

North Korea says we can hardly imagine what that might be, but I think we can try.

The simplest explanation is that North Korea may conduct simultaneous detonations of two or more nuclear devices. Most nuclear powers use these "salvo tests" in order to test more weapons in less time. None of the test personnel live year-round at the nuclear sites, which are often located in remote areas. These areas are often remote because the weather stinks. So the idea of getting two-for-one (or even three-, four- or five-for-one) while the scientists are on site has plenty of appeal, even if it makes the tests more complex. Here is how the Russians explained it:

For underground nuclear explosions the special technology of salvo nuclear tests was developed, when two or more nuclear devices were simultaneously detonated within one nuclear test. This technology represented an essential step forward in comparison with testing of individual nuclear devices because it allowed [the Soviet Union] to intensify testing activities, even if its realization required some increase in the complexity of the experiments. This approach was advanced both in the USSR, and in the U.S., but was more widely practiced in the USSR, apparently due to the more severe weather conditions at the nuclear sites and lower financial and material capabilities. The Soviet Union conducted 146 salvo nuclear tests in which 400 nuclear devices were detonated, while the United States conducted 63 salvo nuclear tests in which 158 nuclear devices were detonated.

Lower financial and material capabilities and severe weather are also factors for Pyongyang. In particular, the North Korean test site has lousy winters, followed by spring floods. This would fit well with my hypothesis that North Korea's tunneling at Punggye is intended to support more intense nuclear testing than the country has conducted to date. On March 28, North Korea hinted at this, warning that the United States should expect "more annual and regular" efforts to bolster and demonstrate Pyongyang's "war deterrent." That general statement suggests we should expect more missile launches and nuclear tests in the coming years.

There are other, more speculative possibilities. North Korea has conducted its previous tests in tunnels drilled horizontally into the mountains around the test site. The size of bombs that the North Koreans can test in these tunnels is limited by the size of the mountain and the resulting overburden. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the current test site can only accommodate a few tens of kilotons.

Larger tests, then, would need to be conducted in shafts drilled horizontally much, much deeper into the ground. Shaft tests are usually limited to several hundred kilotons -- although you can always dig deeper. In 1971, for example, the United States conducted a 5-megaton test in Alaska, Cannikin, in a 1,860 meter shaft. (And, no, I don't think Sarah Palin could feel that from her house. Why do you ask?) At some point, though, drilling deeply is harder than simply scaling the test, given the costs of drilling and challenges of testing below the water table. Thus, this would probably require a different test site than Punggye-ri. So far, there are no reliable reports of a second test site.

Of course, one needs to be careful: Underground tests can release radioactivity into the atmosphere. This happened to the United States with its 1970 Baneberry test, which, much to the chagrin of its team, vented radioactivity. Oops. The author of one U.S. report on containing underground nuclear explosions offered this wry observation about the event:

(Illustration from Caging the Dragon: The Containment of Underground Nuclear Explosions.)

This raises the last possibility that North Korea might consider atmospheric nuclear testing -- something that is prohibited by the Limited Test Ban and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaties, neither of which North Korea has signed. Pyongyang has taken special care to point out that its nuclear tests have no negative environmental impact. That may well be because they are reluctant to inflame Chinese public opinion. The Chinese government released radiation readings after the last nuclear test, to reassure the public in Northern China.

Atmospheric testing is tricky though: For a rich example, look at China's nuclear testing program, which is largely a story of managing international opposition to atmospheric nuclear tests while trying to master the technology of testing underground. (This is, in fact, the origin of China's "no first use" policy.) North Korea has the same constraints, only in Pyongyang's case, the downwinders are its primary lifeline.

I suspect, for the moment, that Chinese public opinion is enough to keep North Korea's nuclear tests underground.

There are, of course, things that might change. If North Korea wants to develop thermonuclear weapons -- something the Chinese achieved with its fifth and sixth nuclear tests -- North Korea might want to test these very large devices at full yield, which probably means atmospherically. And then there is the precedent set by China's fourth nuclear test -- a live warhead delivered by a live missile.

The United States had denigrated China's nuclear program then, as it does North Korea's now, by claiming that a few tests did not mean that either party was capable of actually arming a missile with a nuclear weapon. The Chinese wanted to leave no doubt about that, firing a nuclear-armed missile from a missile test center to the Lop Nor test site. North Korea might conduct atmospheric testing if Kim Jong Un feels the need to develop thermonuclear weapons or perhaps, like China in 1966, wants to demonstrate the ability to deploy nuclear-armed missiles or artillery. A nuclear-armed Musudan, an intermediate-range ballistic missile, would get my attention. Kim Jong Un is only likely to do that, however, if he no longer cares what Beijing thinks.

For now, I am inclined to believe the "new form" of nuclear testing most likely means simultaneous tests, part of a program of more intense nuclear testing that we are likely to see over the next few years. Still, it is useful to remember that Kim Jong Un has a number of other unpleasant provocations from which he might choose.

 This column was produced in partnership with 38 North, where the article first appeared.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images