Tag Archives: Nonviolent resistance

The possibility of nonviolent resistance in the contemporary world

A review of “Pacifism Today: A Dialogue about Alternatives to War in Ukraine”by Majken Jul Sørensen, Irene Publishing, 2024, ISBN 978-91-88061-69-0

Review by Rob Fairmichael

The war in Ukraine, occasioned immediately by a Russian military attack to annex Ukraine, has persuaded some people of the impossibility of nonviolent resistance to such an attack. In this regard it is a bit similar to what happened in the 1930s with the Spanish Civil War. How could pacifism or nonviolence resist in such a situation?

One initial problem is that violence and nonviolence are seldom judged with the same criteria. The war in Ukraine has descended into a First World War-type conflict of attrition. People are realising that Putin can afford to keep throwing resources at the war – anything to avoid losing face – and throwing away lives. The effect at home, justifying repression, also suits Putin. The human, environmental and economic cost of the war, on all sides, is massive. And ‘the west’ has to some extent got tired of throwing military resources to Ukraine (and ‘President Trump’ could end US resources going there anyway). And yet very few are saying that perhaps resisting in this way was a mistake, or that settling early on in the war (when Ukraine was considered to be in the ascendant) should have taken place – the failure to do that was partly the fault of gung ho Boris Johnson in opposing any deal and I would say he has blood on his hands.

Thus ‘war’ as a methodology has not come into question despite the failure to kick Russia out of Ukraine or even its acquisitions in 2022.

Whether you call this publication, with 71 numbered pages, a pamphlet or a book is open to debate. It is short and written by Majken Jul Sørensen in the format of a dialogue (imagined) between a sceptic and herself on the issues involved. This is a useful approach even if sometimes I would feel the sceptic’s comments don’t quite ring true. But I am certainly not accusing the author of being disengenuous and this approach is primarily to provide a hook to hang her quite comprehensive comments on; the book will be judged on whether people are persuaded by Majken’s comments.

Early on Majken (which is how she gives her name before what she says) gives three reasons why she is a pacifist; “…I think it is wrong to kill other people….Second, the price people pay for fighting a war is simply too high…..However, most important is the third part of my answer: today we know a great deal about fighting with nonviolent means and it is irrational to ignore this knowledge…”

She deals with the difficulties in demonstrating publicly in repressive situations and I think more can be made of ‘flash mob’ type manifestations where something happens suddenly and then stops just as suddenly, before ‘security’ forces get there. She mentions ‘two minute strikes’ in Denmark under Nazi control – this may have been too short to have a logistical effect but it showed the widespread support for resistance; and during that war the Freedom Council concluded that strikes caused more damage to the German war effort than riots and sabotage. This all still requires audacity, organisation and skill. She gives some details on Norwegian Second World War resistance to the Quisling regime which was relatively successful while also difficult and dangerous. She emphasises the importance of local knowledge and being able to “read the political game”.

In talking about Chenoweth and Stephan’s 2011 publication “Why civil resistance works”, (see e.g. https://innatenonviolence.org/wp/2022/04/01/nonviolent-resistance-to-invasion-occupation-and-coups-detat/ which shows nonviolent resistance to be more effective than violent (based on 20th century case studies), a point I would add is that Chenoweth and Stephan were studying conflicts within states rather than international war. But a significant number of these were similar in outworking to an inter-state war, and the close relations (literally in the case of mixed Russian-Ukrainian families) between Russia and Ukraine means that they are hardly strangers battling it out from opposite sides of the globe.

Majken also looks at questions around non-lethal violence (e.g. sabotage and rioting) and concludes that “Sabotage and riots might…play a role when it prevents the occupier from having the calm that they long for” and while saying scholars of nonviolence need to look at this more closely she does state that “Maybe the less risky adoption of nonviolent methods without sabotage and riots can be sufficient to disturb the calm and keep the fighting spirit high.”

Unarmed resistance requires courage and sacrifice; there is no easy way to resist, as Majken discusses, and she looks at questions regarding nonviolent accompaniment and the possibilities, or lack of them for using this approach. Perhaps I can add a point previously made by Peter Emerson in these pages – what if such action or presence was engaged in by high profile actors – senior religious and civic figures – it might be both more possible and more effective.

As to whether a moral commitment to pacifism is necessary, or simply a belief in the effectiveness of nonviolence, Majken states “it will be easier for a movement to maintain nonviolent discipline if the refusal to harm comes from a moral belief….”

She correctly identifies NATO’s role in provoking Russia while agreeing that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a brutal act of aggression. She does warn of the dangers of ‘this’ war going on for a long time while also looking at how Putin could be brought down. I would say that sometimes, though we may not like the answer, the requirement is not only resistance but also significant periods of time to enable an opportunity to emerge; the ‘Prague spring’ nonviolent resistance to the Warsaw Pact (=Russian Communist) invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was partly successful – Gene Sharp puts its collapse down to political failings – but the Czechs and Slovaks had to wait another two decades and the popular resistance made possible by Gorbachev’s reforms before being able to throw off the yoke they were under. There are no instant magic wands, nonviolent or violent (violent resistance in Prague in 1968 would have led to catastrophic suffering for the Czechs).

Majken’s final chapter is on “Preparing for unarmed struggle”. This is important. Armies train to both be efficient using their weapons and for soldiers to be prepared to kill. Nonviolent resistance can be effective without preparation but potentially far more effective with it, and she gives a reading list for further learning and thought.

This is a timely publication which is based on the failure of the war machine – military, arms trade, media and above all political establishments – to resist war and its effects. In Gaza we see military speak used to attempt to justify the unjustifiable by Israel. And if you want to trace that back it partly comes from Israeli insecurity and Western guilt after the genocide of Jews by Nazi Germany. And the rise to power of Hitler was largely based on the treatment of Germany following the First World War, and that conflagration was the result of clashing military-imperial rivalries. I realise that this cause-and-effect linkage is simplistic but I would still argue it is correct. So where and how do we ‘break into history’ to say stop?

In the case of the war in Ukraine the time for real rapprochement with Russia was following the collapse of communism. Had ‘the west’ assisted Russia economically and provided other assistance then the authoritarian direction might have been halted. And while it might be counter-intuitive for some people to say eastern Europe would have been safer without NATO membership, NATO pushing towards Russia not only broke promises made after the fall of communism in Russia and eastern Europe but ignored Russia’s memory of Western invasions.

Nonviolent resistance is a vital way to break into history and change the future – in opposing dictatorial rule internally as well dealing with conflict internationally. Some other issues in this area, including in relation to Ireland, are discussed at https://innatenonviolence.org/wp/2022/04/01/nonviolent-resistance-to-invasion-occupation-and-coups-detat/ Majken Jul Sørensen’s book is an important contemporary contribution to the discussion about all of this and deserves widespread reading and discussion. If humanity is to survive on this small globe of ours then nonviolence and the development of nonviolent resistance is essential.

lIrene Publishing’s website is at https://irenepublishing.com/ and – among other items of interest – their list includes books on “Social Defence” by Jørgen Johansen and Brian Martin, on “Gandhi the organiser” by Bob Overy, Michael Randle on his and Pat Pottle’s trial for springing George Blake from prison in Britain, on constructive nonviolent action by Andrew Rigby, “To prevent or stop wars – What can peace movements do?” by Christine Schweitzer, and “Whistleblowing – A practical guide” by Brian Martin. As well, of course, as the above book in the review…..


Readings in Nonviolence: Approaches to nonviolent defence

Defence and offence


A lot of water has flown under many bridges since 1983 when the following piece was written but some of it is not only still very meaningful today but extremely relevant in the Irish context as the process is underway to dismantle the last parts of Irish neutrality, and the Irish state seeks to effectively join NATO and EU nuclear armed and provocative alliances.

What follows are extracts from a paper given by renowned British peace activist and academic Michael Randle to a conference on Building Nonviolent Defence organised by WRI (War Resisters’ International) and IFOR (International Fellowship of Reconciliation) in the Netherlands in July 1983. The wider context then included renewed fears of nuclear war and a strong anti-nuclear weapons movement; currently we have wide fears of escalation in the Russia-Ukraine war but no strong peace movement in relation to it or other critical peace issues, and still the danger of escalation to nuclear war. Reading ‘Russia’ today for ‘the Soviet Union’ then is fascinating and disheartening, and shows how little we (all of us) have progressed in forty years.

The issue of nonviolent defence and non-offensive defence is further dealt with in INNATE’s submission to the Consultative Forum on International Security Policy which will be meeting in June (2023) in Cork, Galway and Dublin; this submission will be included in the July issue of Nonviolent News. The online webinar by StoP on ‘Human and ecological security’ – much more meaningful than a narrow emphasis on ‘military’ security – is online and can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpcK1QYLk6M with Diana Francis, John Maguire and John Lannon.

Dotted lines in the following indicate a section, large or small, which has been omitted from the original (overall a considerable amount is omitted). As with all such pieces we are not saying we agree or disagree with particular points but that the issues and arguments covered are important for any peace movement to consider and look at in relation to ‘our time’.

Extracts from

Approaches to nonviolent defence

by Michael Randle (at WRI/IFOR conference, July 1983)

Alternative Defence has become a major area of discussion within the resurgent peace movement in Europe. In my view it is right that this should be so. First saying no to nuclear weapons – indeed saying no to war – is not a defence policy; second there may well be a large constituency of people who are deeply concerned about the moral implications of nuclear deterrence and the sheer magnitude of the risks involved but who nevertheless go on supporting the present policies because they see no viable alternative. This then may be a particularly opportune moment for advocates of a nonviolent approach to present their ideas.

The need for defence

……. First, attacks from outside on states and communities do occur and can vitally affect the lives of the population……Second, the main threat to a community and the individuals that comprise it does not always and necessarily come from within in the form of an oppressive state machine or exploiting class….Third, a disarmed (or disarming) Western Europe would be at some risk from the Soviet Union and perhaps also from the United States……..

….Nor I think is it sufficient to produce analyses seeking to show that it would not be in the political or economic interest of the Soviet Union to attack Western Europe, though of course every effort must be made to put the Soviet threat into perspective and to show the absurdity of the new Cold War images that are being projected….

Finally I think it has to be said that the Soviet Union has shown itself capable of acting with brutality and cynicism, just like any other superstate one could say, and not only within its so called sphere of influence in Eastern Europe……

Models of Transition and the Role of the State

Two main models of transition are advocated within the nonviolent movement, though there are obviously variants of these.

The transarmament model envisages the possibility of persuading the state to transfer resources currently invested in military defence towards research and preparation for nonviolent defence…..The ultimate aim would be to have the country rely entirely on nonviolent methods for its defence – though there are non-pacifists who see the evolution being towards a mixed strategy of military and non-military defence.

There is more to changing the defence system of a country however than securing transfers of investment, and if transarmament is to become a concrete programme that governments could be pressed to adopt its advocates will have to address themselves also to he question of how the military posture and military strategies of a country or alliance might be modified over time so that they become less provocative and less likely to lead to war; the ‘defensive’ military postures now being widely discussed in the broader peace movement and in some military/strategic circles would be relevant here. But a discussion of this kind would underline the tension for pacifist organisations between their uncompromising anti-militarism – their advocacy for instance at the personal level of non-cooperation with any form of military organisation – and the espousal of a programme of change which envisages military defence for the forseeable future and perhaps even a system of conscription to maintain it.

The libertarian, anti-statist model

The main alternative model looks to the development of nonviolent methods of defence from below by peace and radical movements and rejects collaboration with the state. Its advocates point to contradictions for pacifists of such collaborations, and above all stress the danger that the state might take-over the notion of nonviolent civilian resistance but treat it simply as a technique and incorporate it as a minor element in a total defence strategy which would remain overwhelmingly military in its emphasis, and might indeed have a nuclear element in some cases.

The great problem here is to see how a changeover to a different system could occur……

I share by and large the libertarian vision of the possibilities of developing societies that do not have the concentration of the means of violence, the political specialisation and the generally hierarchic structures that characterise the modern state. But I feel that for the forseeable future we are going to have to deal with states and be prepared to exert pressure on them to modify their structures and change their policies especially their military policies. And there will be tensions, perhaps even contradictions……But this is not to say that the demand for total unilateral disarmament should necessarily be central in the day-to-day campaigning of nonviolent and peace movements; it may be more fruitful at a given moment to press with others for less radical changes that have some prospect of being accepted within the current order of things – the acceptance of no-first-use of nuclear weapons policy, the abolition of battlefield nuclear weapons from Europe, even the adoption of a more reasonable position in bi-lateral or multi-lateral disarmament negotiations……………..

Meeting points. Differences of emphasis will undoubtedly continue within the nonviolent movement on the question of alternative defence. But it is important also that we do not waste too much energy on the internal debates but have a sense of the shared assumptions and objectives.

a) At the individual level we are committed to non-cooperation with the military. In the long term at least this implies societies run on very different lines to those of the present day. This commitment is also an important point of identification for pacifists and nonviolent activists within the broader peace movement.

b) There is consensus that nonviolent defence must remain rooted in the population and the institutions at the base of society – trade unions, cultural, religious, political and similar organisations. Libertarians insist on this to the total exclusion of the state, but advocates of transarmament also say that the nonviolent defence must be popularly based and not in the hands of a state bureaucracy; thus the Belgian movement uses the term ‘popular nonviolent defence’.

c) There is a shared awareness of the danger not only of war but of the militarisation of society, and this may prove an important basis for judging the modified military strategies which are already being discussed and which may assume increasing importance if the anti-nuclear peace movement continues to grow.

Non-provocative Military Defence – An Interim Stage?

The concept of ‘non-provocative defence’, sometimes also referred to as ‘defensive deterrence’, is attracting increasing attention both within the peace movement and outside it. The idea is that the capacity of a military system to conduct offensive operations would be severely restricted, even if one could not eliminate it altogether; thus long range rockets and bombers would be eliminated; fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missiles would be used for anti-aircraft defence; there would be fewer tanks but more anti-tank munitions; and troops would be deployed and equipped in a way that would make it much more difficult for them to be mobilised and used in offensive operations.

It is further agued that since the defence enjoys certain inherent advantages in any conflict, and the offence needs normally something like a three to one superiority to be reasonably sure of success, a purely defensive system could operate with smaller forces Thus one might escape from the process of mutual escalation that characterises the present situation; moreover potential opponents would feel less threatened and this should create a better atmosphere for disarmament and political negotiations.

Clearly such a system would be preferable to the present posture of the NATO alliance with its heavy emphasis on nuclear weapons at every level and its commitment to use nuclear weapons first under some circumstances against a conventional attack……..Yet this specific example serves to highlight the problems involved in the whole exercise of seeking intermediate solutions.

a) If people come to see non-provocative defence as a reasonably secure alternative to nuclear deterrence, they may lose the incentive to search for the more radical alternatives that we favour…..

b) One of the weaknesses of the concept may be that it concentrates too much on the military battlefield as such and pays insufficient attention to the fact that the pattern in the development of warfare in the 20th century has been to turn the whole of society into the battlefield. This fact is illustrated by the increasing civilian casualties in the major wars that have occurred this century…..

c) Some versions of non-provocative defence involve a much higher level of participation by the whole population (or more usually the male section of it) in military preparations; in some sense at least they involve the militarisation of society……

Combining Military and Nonviolent Strategies

If change occurs gradually, there is likely to be a point at which preparations for military and non-military defence exist side by side….

Preparing simultaneously for military and non-military defence may present no insuperable difficulty, but the problems of operating a ‘mixed strategy’ of violent and nonviolent resistance during an actual conflict are another matter. The dynamic of the two approaches is so different that one could easily work against the other…..

Nevertheless the civilian resistance in occupied Europe from 1940-45 followed in most cases an unsuccessful military resistance, and if a nonviolent campaign is separated from the military defence in terms of time and space and organisation, one may avoid some of the major problems of a mixed strategy…..

Limitations of Nonviolent Resistance as a Means of Defence


Limitations as a deterrent

The sanctions that nonviolent resistance imposes are slow acting, and might not deter a potential aggressor intent upon some immediate strategic or practical goal.

Limitations in defending outlying areas, or attacks to gain strategic goals

Nonviolent resistance is far more suited to resisting political and cultural domination of a society, and perhaps denying an opponent economic goals, than to defending tracts of territory…….

Limitations at the level of collective security and peacekeeping

The possibilities for co-operation between states relying mainly or completely on nonviolent defence are at present very limited; there is no equivalent in the nonviolent sphere of the kind of collective security that can be provided by a military alliance, or international military guarantees. Similarly peacekeeping operations within the United Nations or other international bodies at present always involve armed forces. Perhaps unarmed forces could take on the peacekeeping role in some situations, but in others it would be very difficult to imagine how this would work.

Nonviolent resistance to invasion, occupation and coups d’état

by Rob Fairmichael

References are given at the end to facilitate follow up and further reading.


Where is the discussion of the possibilities of nonviolence and nonviolent resistance to be seen in relation to the war on Ukraine and after that started? Almost nowhere. (*1) And yet you had the ludicrous example of a few people asking why Ireland (Republic) was not sending arms to Ukraine, as if anything Ireland could have sent would have made any difference in the military fight between it and Russia. And arms components from Belfast firm Thales are being used on both sides of the war in Ukraine! Most people are simply and totally unaware of the possibilities of nonviolent resistance, or, if they even think of it, dismiss it out of hand, particularly in relation to ‘hard’ situations like an invasion.

But people do not dismiss violent resistance out of hand, even where it fails, dismally or heroically, or would fail – as with Irish military resistance to invasion by a major power. In Ukraine violent resistance has been heroic in the military tradition and certainly successful in slowing the Russian invasion (which was very poorly planned), and even able to push back in some areas, but it has also been also costly in terms of lives lost and homes and infrastructure destroyed as well as massive displacement of people, either as internal or external refugees. The trauma is massive. We don’t know how the war in Ukraine will end but at the moment it is not looking good for avoiding Russian control in eastern and south-eastern Ukraine. Nonviolent resistance needs to be judged by the same measurements as violent. And it needs to be brought out of the shadows to be able to stand in the position it deserves.

I wrote an 8-page paper on “An alternative defence for Ireland: Some considerations and a model of defence without arms for the Irish people” in late 1983 (*2), some years before the fall of Russian communism. Little did I think that almost four decades later I would be writing a piece about the same matter in the context of a war started by still autocratic but crony-capitalist Russia. I also attended and wrote about a WRI-IFOR conference on the less-statist concept of ‘Social defence’ (see definition later) in Bradford in 1990. (*3) However this article has two main geographical points of reference, to two very different situations and locations within Europe, Ukraine and Ireland. I would stress that it is a relatively short exploration of the matter and much further work can be done or referred to.

What is nonviolent civilian resistance and social defence?

Perhaps we need a few definitions at the start. But it also needs clarified that, as always, different people can use the same term differently, or even the same people give a different emphasis from time to time.

Civilian-based defence is non-military defence of a state or territory. Adam Roberts (*4) in a classic 1960s study states that he made certain assumptions about its implementation “that it is accepted as government policy; that it is adopted on its own rather than in combination with military defence; and that it is employed in defence of a country with a reasonably high degree of social cohesion and with independent political parties, trade unions and press.” Particularly considering the first phrase of this quote, this places it quite close to ‘social defence’ as defined below.

Gene Sharp has said of the policy of civilian-based defence that “the whole population and the society’s institutions become the fighting forces. Their weaponry consists of a vast variety of forms of psychological, economic, social, and political resistance and counter-attack. This policy aims to deter attacks and to defend against them by preparations to make the society unrulable by would-be tyrants and aggressors…..In addition, where possible, the defending country would aim to create maximum international problems for the attackers and to subvert the reliability of their troops and functionaries”. (*5)

Social defence is a term which has tended to be used, perhaps mainly within the peace movement, to mean “the nonviolent protection of a society and its way of life, either from an outside invader or an unjust domestic situation” (*6) This definition highlights the key difference in social defence as opposed to civilian-based defence in that it pinpoints the importance of people being able to resist internal repression as well as external aggression; it explicitly includes being used for dealing with despotic rule internally as much as external aggression and invasion.

This point about the internal (within a state or territory) relevance of social defence is well explored in the best recent book on social defence, by Jørgen Johansen and Brian Martin. (*7) In this its is stated “Social defence involves increasing the capacity of ordinary people to resist external aggression, and this necessarily means increasing the capacity to resist their own government. Hence social defence provides a guide for community empowerment that can challenge many different types of domination….”

But their more general definition is that ““Social defence is nonviolent community resistance to repression and aggression, as an alternative to military forces. “Nonviolent” means using rallies, strikes, boycotts and other such methods that do not involve physical violence against others. Social defence has other names, including nonviolent defence, civilian-based defence and defence by civil resistance.” (*8)

Transarmament is another useful term which can be defined as “the gradual transition from one type of defence – armed and nuclear – to another type of defence – popular and nonviolent.” (*9) ‘Nonviolent resistance’ can be used in the context of invasion and occupation but it can be applied to any nonviolent action against injustice and oppression.

In Mohandas Gandhi’s categorisation of resistance to violence and injustice, there were three broad categories; passivity or cowardice, violence, and nonviolence. He went so far as to say “where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence” but qualified that by saying “I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence…” (*10) and a sign of strength and certainly not weakness. While the term ‘passive resistance’ has been used for nonviolent resistance (Gandhi’s ‘satyagraha’ = ‘truth force’ is a strong contrast) it is very misleading as the concept is anything but ‘passive’ – it is active, engaged and challenging; the term ‘passive resistance’ is therefore best avoided.

Parameters and historical experiences of nonviolent civilian and social defence

It is clear that in Russian occupied parts of Ukraine currently, Ukrainians have still been able, in very difficult circumstances, to assert their right to independence and, while not to get Russian troops out of the country, to get them out of the immediate environs of their town or village. (*11) The allegation that nonviolent action is impossible in difficult and repressive circumstances is simply not true as Basil Liddell Hart wrote in relation to interrogation of German generals following the Second World War: “Their evidence also showed the effectiveness of non-violent resistance as practised in Denmark, Holland and Norway – and, to some extent, in France and Belgium. Even clearer was their inability to cope with it. They were experts in violence, and had been trained to deal with opponents who used that method. But other forms of resistance baffled them – and all the more as the methods were subtle and concealed.” (*12)

The second volume of Gene Sharp’s landmark publication “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” (*13) on “The Methods of Nonviolent Action” largely consists of historical examples of nonviolent action fitting his 198 “Methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion”. Some speak of incredibly brave and imaginative actions in very difficult circumstances. But others are of more mundane examples – even letter writing or petitions – which can take on much greater significance than normal because of the context. In relation to Russian control of Eastern Europe, once control had been ceded at the Yalta allies conference, there was no chance of the successful military overthrow of such control; nonviolent resistance, however, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, in Poland subsequently, and eventually in the successful overthrow of control by the USSR from 1989 during glasnost, was the best method people could use with the highest chance of success.

Some people thought that Russian control of Eastern Europe was a permanent feature of geopolitical life; it wasn’t and was overthrown by largely nonviolent action and organisation. Some people thought that the apartheid system in South Africa could only be overthrown by violence; it wasn’t and it was largely nonviolent action and organisation, at home and abroad, which made the transformation to democratic rule.

In Johansen and Martin’s book on social defence they conclude in relation to one of their historical examples, Czechoslovakia resisting a Russian invasion in 1968 when Russia was trying to keep control of this part of their eastern European empire, that “(1) remaining nonviolent is crucial; (2) resistance organised by the people is stronger than resistance directed by the government;(3) fraternisation is a powerful technique; (4) resilient communication systems providing accurate information are vital: (5) maintaining unity of the resistance is vital: (6) leaders need to understand the dynamics of nonviolent resistance.” (* 14)

There is of course the possibility of combining military and civil resistance, but there are dangers in this such and Johansen and Martin make the point “remaining nonviolent is crucial”. One of the dangers in combining the two is that civil resistance “often depends on a reluctance by the authorities to resort to wholesale repression, a reluctance that may itself spring from an uncertainty about the effect on the morale of their troops and security forces of being ordered to attack civilians. But these inhibitions and constraints can quickly break down where there is the constant danger of ambushes, assassinations, bomb attacks and so on, and above all where the distinction between combatant and non-combatant begins to disappear” (*15)

A nonviolent response also facilitates fraternisation as a positive policy to influence invaders. In Czechoslovakia in 1968 some Russian troops had to be withdrawn, and replaced by far-eastern USSR troops who were not Russian speakers, so successful had citizen interactions with soldiers been in persuading them that they were not liberators but oppressors. And in the context of the Cold war the well known British Christian minister and peace activist Donald Soper said “Russians who appear to be impervious to threats and the Cold War may well be susceptible and responsive to friendliness and the warm heart” (*16)

Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweths famous study (*17) of the comparative success rates of violent and nonviolent resistance is instructive here too. They state “Our findings show that major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns. There are two reasons for this success. First, a campaign’s commitment to nonviolent methods enhances its domestic and international legitimacy and encourages more broad-based participation in the resistance, which translates into increased pressure being brought to bear on the target……..Second, whereas governments easily justify violent counterattacks against armed insurgents, regime violence against nonviolent movements is more likely to backfire against the regime…..” (*18) They state that “Our findings challenge the conventional wisdom that violent resistance against conventionally superior adversaries is the most effective way for resistance groups to achieve policy goals.”

Given that Stephan and Chenoweth studied campaigns from 1900 to 2006 this is a fairly comprehensive study. It is to be noted that their conclusions apply to democratic and non-democratic societies. They also indicate that it is irrelevant whether the nonviolence comes from strategic (pragmatic) as opposed to principled nonviolence (*19) although “the vast majority of participants in nonviolent struggles have not been devoted to principled nonviolence”. There is a slight risk in their terminological use of ‘principled nonviolence’ in relation to people who have a religious or ethical commitment to nonviolence that those who just use it pragmatically could be ‘unprincipled’ but that is obviously not their intention. Their point that “Nonviolent resistance achieves demands against the will of the opponent by seizing control of the conflict through widespread noncooperation and defiance” is a short statement illustrating the power of nonviolence.

However it can be objected that they were looking at ‘organised civilian populations’ interacting with states and not international warfare. This is certainly a qualification to Stephan and Chenoweth’s conclusions, certainly in relation to inter-state warfare. However it can also be said that many of the cases studied were of a scale and in situations which replicated some of the conditions of inter-state relations. In considering the situation in relation to the war in Ukraine it can also be said that Russia and Ukraine are two countries with close relations, historically and personally, and therefore have less of the ‘distant’ feeling about an opposing country than international warfare can have; the people of the two countries are, literally and metaphorically, cousins.

It cannot be assumed that just because resistance is nonviolent that the regime being opposed will keel over. Stephan and Chenoweth’s relative success for nonviolent campaigns is often in the context of long and arduous struggles. Gene Sharp put it this way about what he termed some ‘naive conceptions’: “It is not true that if opponents of a regime struggle nonviolently the oppressive regime will be nonviolent too, and quietly acquiesce. It is not true that by being nonviolent one avoids suffering and sacrifices. It is not true that if the opponent reacts with brutal, violent repression, the struggle has been lost and the movement defeated. It is not true that the nonviolent way is an easy way.” (*20)

Nevertheless Sharp, in name and perceptions, also covers the weaknesses of dictatorships. (*21) The crucial task of identifying the weaknesses in any regime is key to success; what may work in relation to one may be water off a duck’s back for another. Intense engagement with the cultural norms and parameters of the culture concerned may be required, and obviously using the weaknesses that exist to maximum effect.

One of the more general issues in relation to violence and nonviolence is the perceived lack of choice in ‘having to’ choose violence. Helen Steven put it this way: “The problem is that so often we are presented with an apparently clear choice: use military intervention or do nothing – “Let Bosnia/Kosovo/East Timor burn”. The nonviolent choice is never between doing violence and doing nothing. Nonviolence is about finding the creative alternative and always standing up against evil and oppression….” (* 22)


Ukrainian military resistance has worked better than almost anyone believed, and the Russian military attack has been more shambolic than almost anyone believed. The result has been very limited success for Russia although its greatest success has been in the east and south-east where it is most interested in success (apart from its stalled attempt to take Kyiv/Kiev). However the longer the war goes on the more that Russia, with its air and artillery dominance can batter Ukraine’s towns and cities, and their people, into the ground.

The situation is quite disastrous for Ukraine. If ten to fifteen thousand Russian soldiers have been killed to date, the total Ukrainian casualty list is probably not too far behind, counting both soldiers and civilians.

It is for the people of any country to decide how they should defend their autonomy. The danger for Ukraine is that a long war of attrition will lead to more Mariupols in terms of death and destruction. Vladimir Putin is obviously willing to sacrifice however many of his soldiers he thinks necessary to attain whatever he considers are his minimum demands in Ukraine although these have not been clear. If it is almost certain that he expected a speedy victory in Ukraine, it is then true that military resistance has led to him and Russia having to scale back their expectations and demands but Russia can continue to inflict brutal pain on Ukraine for a considerable time.

It is in this context that nonviolent resistance could be considered by Ukraine after a ceasefire, either in relation to the whole country or in relation to possible attempts to cleave off parts of the south and south-east to be ceded to Russia. Neither path is easy, violent or nonviolent, but nonviolent resistance would arguably have a greater chance of success in the long run given the superior military strength of Russia compared to Ukraine, notwithstanding Ukrainian relative success to date in withstanding Russian onslaughts. It would certainly prevent massive death rates and destruction. There would not need to be a time limit on nonviolent resistance because it could be hoped that ‘normal’ aspects of civilian life which were not seen to be compromised by the Russian invasion could continue.

One problem in switching to nonviolent resistance is that it could be conceived by those fighting the Russians, and by the general population, as capitulation and defeat. Instead it should be seen as switching to a different means of struggle and a new chapter in resistance.

Neutrality for Ukraine needs to be defined and accepted by Ukraine, Russia and NATO. Neutrality should have been a policy adopted back in time. The expectation that Russia should accept NATO on its doorstep flies in the face of what the USA would accept in its vicinity; in 1962 the USA threatened nuclear obliteration to get Russian missiles removed from Cuba. ‘Neutrality with guarantees’ could have been an alternative in general in Eastern Europe to NATO going against its fall-of-Russian-communism promise not to expand eastwards in Europe. It is certainly understandable that certain countries might want to join NATO but that does not mean it was the correct decision in building peaceful détente in Europe (aside from other questions about NATO’s general role in the world, nuclear policies, and first use of violence). It is NATO which has been most responsible for the militarisation of Europe.


The war in Ukraine has raised numerous debates about Irish neutrality and whether it is still justified. There are many issues involved. One such issue is the strategic position of Ireland. A published letter writer pointing out in horror that Ireland (Republic of) would have no defence against Russian ships manoeuvring in the Atlantic coming in to take Irish ports was expressing a naive view that Ireland could or should have such a defence. The reality is of course that Russia has no interest whatsoever in getting control of Ireland – it has major problems in winning a war against Ukraine on its doorstep. However, as in the Second World War, successful Irish military resistance against any major power invader is unrealistic even today if it met PESCO-warranted expenditure on the military and dramatically increased the strength of the Irish ‘defence forces’.

There are two major issues here. One is how can Ireland minimise the remote chance of invasion, or deal with such an event. The other is how it could, and should, provide solidarity to other countries and work for peace in the world.

Concerning Irish strategic security, I would argue that a planned nonviolent defence of the country, along with a positively neutral and peaceful foreign policy, is the best defence the country could have. A positive neutrality would avoid making enemies as much as possible, not as an aim, because the aim should be international justice, but as a by product.

The policy would include civilian preparation and training; this would involve the general civilian preparation for such an eventuality but also specific tasks for certain groups and organisations in the event of invasion. It would also include the scuttling/destruction or putting beyond use of key facilities and resources that any invader might want to use. The preparedness of the population to use nonviolent resistance, and deny use of facilities to an invader, would be publicised (though not specific details). Other measures would include food and energy security so that in times of trouble internationally, Ireland could be self sufficient.

If any major power did decide to take Ireland militarily it would likely only be in the context of a major military conflagration where there was basically another world war. The chances of anyone wanting to have a military invasion of Ireland in other contexts is slim but there is no harm, and perhaps more peace of mind, in being prepared. I strongly believe that a nonviolent civilian defence policy, allied to a positive neutrality, is the best choice in relation to this.

Now for the question of international solidarity. Those who favour joining NATO tend to speak of the ‘mutual protection’ aspect of it, i.e. an attack against one is considered an attack against all. There are problems with this argument, and more generally with NATO policies and the idea that because the Republic is in the EU it should ‘defend’ its neighbours. But what if, as I believe, NATO policies frequently exacerbate tensions, as with Russia, and its nuclear warfare policy is part of a threat hanging over the whole of humanity? Do we want to hide under a nuclear umbrella? Do we want to engage in confrontational military policies? Do we want to support militarist solutions to the world’s problems when the military are often the problem (and an issue in terms of their expense which denies expenditure on the things which humanity needs)?

There is a simplistic belief about that to be ‘good Europeans’ we have to support whatever direction the EU is going in; this is simple nonsense, and the EU is increasingly becoming the European arm of NATO. We should do what we consider good for humanity and a militarised EU risks being another belligerent in resource wars in the later 21st century.

A belief in human security rather than military security would entail dealing with issues of injustice, political and economic, and settling on tacking health inequalities worldwide (e.g. Covid vaccinations) and transitioning to green energy and ecological living as fast as possible to avoid the disasters of global warming.

Ireland has played a positive role on the world stage at different times, including Eamon de Valera with the League of Nations. Ireland has contributed significantly to nuclear non-proliferation work and to the banning of landmines and cluster weapons. A general question regarding NATO is whether you believe peace can be achieved through the barrel of a gun or the controls of a military drone. If the best humanity can achieve is armed stand-offs of highly militarised countries this has many risks, not least that if countries have expensive weapons systems and strong armies that they feel they should be used occasionally. Humanity had enough experience of the threatened terrors of armed conflict during the Cold War, and on a number of occasions narrowly missed nuclear conflagration. How can this situation be considered ‘safe’ or involvement in NATO be seen as contributing to Irish safety? The opposite is the case.

But a question for Ireland is also whether it wants to be just another cog in a big military machine (NATO and/or its European presence in terms of an increasingly militarised EU) or to take a different and far more rewarding, peaceful path, a path less chosen perhaps but with great potential. Why has Ireland not been involved in a mediation process regarding Ukraine? Or Yemen? Why does Irish foreign policy slavishly follow the EU? What can we do for peace not just in Europe but worldwide?

As a former colonised country on the edge of Europe, without many axes to grind in geopolitical terms, why is Ireland not saying “We can strive to be a peacemaker”? The Irish constitution refers to affirming its adherence to the principle of the pacific settlement of international disputes – what does this mean in concrete terms? How can that be operationalised – what can we do about it? No, joining a military alliance and ‘picking sides’ militarily is not adding to this in any way, very much the opposite.

The world needs neutral countries to stand aside from military conflicts and build peace. As Irish involvement in welcoming Ukrainian refugees shows, you can exercise solidarity in non-military ways. We need to build a world of solidarity without militarism and continually looking for ways to get rid of the risk and costs associated with it.

Ireland has the opportunity to have a non-military defence policy. At the very least it should develop its peacemaking capacity while maintaining a non-offensive defence policy (joining NATO would destroy that). Ireland is small but we can be not just an example but a builder of peace in a real way. It is also a question of whether we believe in a better, more just, demilitarised world or a fearful world of unjust armed blocks. The choice is ours.


It suits those who believe in militarism to speak of those who reject the ways of violence as people who simply want to roll over and accept whatever injustice is meted out, and they may also use a term like ‘simplistic’ for those supporting such a nonviolent option. It can be argued that it is those who slavishly think that violent resistance is the only possible methodology in difficult circumstances are the ones who are really being simplistic. Nonviolent resistance and social defence, as this article attests, can be a highly sophisticated form of social and political action which has the greatest chance of success. But it also bears the seeds of breaking into circles and cycles of violence to build a more peaceful world and avoid visiting another cycle of violence on our children, grandchildren and successive generations.

Historical nonviolent resistance to invasion and occupation has tended to be spontaneous rather than planned well in advance, before the occupation took place. It can be rightly argued that if significant preparation or civilian resistance and defence is made before any such invasion it will a) have a deterrent effect, and b) if invasion does take place, be more successful because the underground networks and preparation have already been fashioned, the strategy and tactics worked out and citizens are not having to simply improvise under very trying circumstances.

Nonviolent civilian resistance is a real and effective option for Ireland which has a strong civil society and collective identification. Not to see that reality is to have militarist-shaded spectacles on and most likely to be simplistic in a belief in the efficacy of violence and its western advocate and practitioner, NATO. We can do much, much better.

References and further reading

(*1) And on the rare occasion such coverage happens the media may not permit discussion and follow up e.g. The Irish Times article by Breda O’Brien 19/3/22 https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/non-violence-is-not-naive-unrealistic-or-useless-1.4829737 on “Non-violence is not naive, unrealistic or uselesshad no follow up letters published.

(*2) An alternative defence for Ireland: Some considerations and a model of defence without arms for the Irish people, Dawn magazine No.95-96, December 1983. Available in the pamphlets section of the INNATE website at https://innatenonviolence.org/wp/pamphlets/ In that 1983 piece I give some consideration to Northern Ireland’s position in relation to UK membership of NATO; however in this article I have deliberately not done so in order to allow the length to be manageable and keep the main focus. But the North being in NATO is an issue.

(*3) “Social defence” in Dawn Train No.10, page 18, 1991, available on the INNATE website at https://innatenonviolence.org/dawntrain/index.shtml I quote Gene Sharp at this Bradford conference saying he used the term ‘civilian based defence’ rather than ‘social defence’ which he indicated was used for anything and everything nonviolent. The WRI/War Resisters International, co-sponsors of the conference with IFOR/International Fellowship of Reconciliation published the book “Nonviolent Struggle and Social Defence” in 1991, edited by Shelley Anderson and Janet Larmore; the text is available at https://wri-irg.org/en/nonviolence/nvsd.shtml

(*4) ”Civilian Resistance as a National Defence: Non-violent Action Against Aggression”, ed. Adam Roberts, page 249, Pelican, 1969, first published by Faber and Faber 1967.

(*5) Gene Sharp, “Making Europe Unconquerable: The potential of civilian-based deterrence and defence”, page 2, Taylor and Francis, 1985. Sharp includes consideration of Czechoslovak resistance to Russian control/invasion in 1968-69, page 47, stating that (he was writing in 1985) it “constitutes perhaps the most significant civilian struggle for national defence purposes. Ultimately, the attempt was defeated, but not quickly. For eight months, the Czechs and Slovaks prevented the Russians from achieving their political objective – a regime responsive to Soviet wishes.”

(*6) Quoted from IFOR’s “Reconciliation International”, date unknown, cited in (*2) above.

(*7) “Social defence”, by Jørgen Johansen and Brian Martin, Irene Publishing, 2019, page 158, reviewed in Nonviolent News 282 https://www.innatenonviolence.org/readings/2020_09.shtml

(*8) Ibid, page 13.

(*9) Translated from Hugues Colle in “Non-violence politique”, No.60, June 1983; the same definition was used by Gene Sharp.

(*10) https://www.mkgandhi.org/nonviolence/phil8.htm

(*11) E-mail information from Yurii Sheliazhenko and also https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/26/russian-soldiers-release-ukraine-towns-mayor-and-agree-to-leave-after-protests

(*12) Basil Liddell Hart in Civilian Resistance as a National Defence”, ed. Adam Roberts, Pelican, 1969, pages 239-240.

(*13) Gene Sharp, “The Politics of Nonviolent Action”, 3 volumes, Porter Sargent, 1973.

(*14) Johansen and Martin, 2019, page 56.

(*15) Defence without the Bomb: The report of the Alternative Defence Commission” (Britain), page 229, Taylor and Francis, 1983.

(*16) Quoted in “What to do about Hitler – a pacifist symposium”, privately published by Philip Dransfield, England, 1989.

(*17) “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflictby Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, Columbia Studies in Terrorism and Irregular Warfare, 320 pages, and online article from International Security”, Vol.33, No.1, Summer 2008, pages 7-44 for which word search ‘stephan chenoweth civil resistance’. ‘Readings in Nonviolence’ in Nonviolent News 277 https://www.innatenonviolence.org/readings/2020_03.shtml gives a review summary.

(*18) Ibid, pages 8 – 9 of online article.

(*19) Ibid, page 10

(*20) Gene Sharp, “Social power and Political Freedom”, page 167, Porter Sargent, 1980.

(*21) Gene Sharp, “From Dictatorship to Democracy”, pages 39-40, Serpent’s Tail, London, 2012; this is his work most associated with the ‘Arab Spring’ and it has appeared in various editions and languages.

(*22) Helen Steven in No alternative? Nonviolent responses to repressive regimes”, ed. John Lampen, page 110, Williams Sessions Ltd, 2000. Incidentally, East Timor is one of the cases considered by Stephan and Chenoweth.

Another short work worth looking out for is “Capital defence: Social defence for Canberra”, a 72 page pamphlet written by Jacki Quilty. Lynne Dickins, Phil Anderson and Brian Martin”, Canberra Peacemakers, 1986, which is a clear and concise exploration of possibilities in a particular, Australian, context.

A significant amount of the material above is from the 1980s and 1990s because there was more of a focus on the issue at that time – however it is also an idea whose time is coming again.