Thoughts on Ukraine

By Stephen Zunes

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a clearcut act of aggression, a flagrant violation of the United Nations Charter and other fundamental principles of international law. It has resulted in an enormous level of human suffering, including multiple attacks on civilian population centers. Much of the world has united against Russia, which under Putin seems have combined some of the worst elements of the Czarist and Communist regimes. In addition, Russia’s violation of the 1994 Budapest agreement—in which Ukraine agreed to destroy its nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union in return for guarantees of its territorial integrity—has been a major setback in nonproliferation efforts.

Unfortunately, the history of U.S. militarism, imperialism, and false narratives has led some on the antiwar left to rationalize Russian aggression and exaggerate Western responsibility. A number of forums and rallies in the weeks preceding the invasion calling for no war in Ukraine focused on the nonexistent threat of U.S. military intervention while ignoring the very real and growing threat of a Russian invasion. Subsequently, some have tried to blame Washington for Moscow’s actions.

It is certainly true that the decision by the United States to break what appears to have been a promise to the Kremlin that NATO would not expand eastward contributed to Putin’s paranoid nationalism. Incorporating former Warsaw Pact countries and three former Soviet republics into the Western alliance could be seen as unnecessarily provocative, particularly considering invasions of Russia from Western Europe through Ukraine in 1812, 1914, 1919, and 1941.

Putin appears to have at least some U.S. supporters. Not only are many in the Trump wing of the Republican Party embracing his autocratic reactionary nationalism, but there are also people on the left who have embraced him simply because he opposes the United States. They have repeated the Kremlin’s lies that neo-Nazis, who only received 2½ percent of the vote in the most recent elections, control the Ukrainian government and military. The current president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who won by a landslide, is Jewish and an ethnic Russian, making claims that the Ukrainian government is controlled by Nazis committing genocide against Russian-speakers particularly absurd.

While international law gives Ukraine every right to resist Russian aggression through military force, there are serious questions as to whether the valiant but extremely costly resistance to Russian efforts to annex the country’s eastern provinces is worth the cost. Others argue that it is worth sacrificing tens of thousands of lives, destroying cities and livelihoods, and the enormous financial and environmental costs in order to defend the important principle that no country has the right to expand its territory by force or unilaterally change recognized international boundaries.

However, Western nations have hardly been consistent in upholding that principle. The United States, for example, has formally recognize Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights and Morocco’s annexation of the entire nation of Western Sahara, both seized by force in defiance of the United Nations. Similarly, the United States has repeatedly insisted that the Palestinians give up large swathes of the West Bank occupied by Israel as part of any peace agreement. As a result, allowing Russia to hold on to Crimea, which it illegally annexed in 2014, or parts of the Donbas region it currently occupies illegally, would not necessarily set a dangerous new precedent.

Are there nonviolent alternatives to either capitulation to Russian aggression or an ongoing, bitter, deadly stalemated armed conflict?

Ukraine has had an impressive history of nonviolent resistance, including the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution following an effort by the ruling party to install the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych as the new president in a stolen election. The massive civil insurrection forced a new election in which the democratic pro-Western opposition won. Yanukovych won the presidency legitimately in 2010, but rampant corruption, unpopular policies, and increased political repression led to the 2013-2014 Maidan Revolution which forced his departure and, after a short interim government, allowed for a new round of elections a few months later. Running as an outsider opposed to the two major corrupt political blocs, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected by a landslide in 2019.

Both uprisings were overwhelmingly nonviolent. The rioters that engaged in the street fighting during the Maidan protests were the equivalent of the Black Bloc groups that have taken advantage of large nonviolent protests against racism and neoliberal globalization in that they got the bulk of the media coverage, but they were not leading the struggle. And the armed fascist groups that seized some government buildings in the final hours or Maidan uprising were of little consequence as well—Yanukovych had already fled to Russia by that hour.

Some pro-Putin elements have tried to depict the popular uprising against Yanukovych as a U.S.-sponsored coup d’état, citing then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s efforts to influence the makeup of the post-Yanukovych interim government and an earlier trip to Ukraine in which she expressed her solidarity with the protests by passing out bread to demonstrators. There is also no question that the United States directly and indirectly provided some funding to some opposition groups (though nowhere near the $5 billion some people are quoting; that figure was the total of all foreign aid to Ukraine since 1991, including when pro-Western governments were in power the U.S. presumably didn’t want to overthrow). However, such funding does not constitute a coup.

Indeed, it’s also true that the Soviet Union provided some aid to leftist revolutionaries around the world and tried to influence the makeup of their post-revolutionary governments. However, claims by former president Ronald Reagan and others that the Soviets caused these revolutions or led these revolutions or “exported revolutions” or that these revolutions were “Soviet coups” denies agency to oppressed peoples who rose up against various rightwing U.S.-backed dictatorships.

Similarly, the claims that the limited amount of U.S. assistance and interference somehow delegitimizes the 2013-2014 popular struggle Yanukovych is just as simplistic as those who insisted the Soviets were carrying out a “hit list” in Central America and elsewhere by supposedly instigating these struggles. It denies agency to the millions of Ukrainians who, like leftist revolutionaries in previous eras, made some major political mistakes but were motivated by a sincere desire for greater freedom, justice, and self-determination.

The burden of proof should belong to those who have thus far failed to provide evidence that the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have twice braved winter cold for months in overwhelmingly nonviolent protests and the millions of others who honored calls for strikes and boycotts would have failed to do so were it not for the United States.

Could this impressive homegrown nonviolent legacy be applied in the face of the Russian invasion today? It is certainly difficult to nonviolently defend cities under heavy aerial bombardment, though there has been impressive nonviolent protests and massive noncooperation in Ukrainian cities under Russian occupation. A strong case can be made that a comprehensive nonviolent defense plan based on massive noncooperation could make a Russian occupation untenable, but it is probably not realistic to expect Ukrainians to lay down their arms and hope that the subsequent Russian occupation of their country could be defeated accordingly.

The best hope for a nonviolent resolution would come from within Russia itself, where—despite a very repressive political environment—many hundreds of individual and collective actions have taken place. The United States and other Western countries therefore need to pursue policies which would encourage the Russian opposition and undermine the nationalist sentiment which has strengthened Putin’s hand.

This would require the Biden administration to renounce its recognition of the illegal Israeli and Moroccan occupations, end its policy of blocking UN Security Council action in resolving these conflicts. and demand that these allies immediately withdraw from all of their occupied territories. In doing so, it would make clear that Western opposition to Russian aggression is indeed based upon international law, not simply a geopolitical calculation in which the U.S. insists that its allies can engage in illegal activities while Russia cannot. Similarly, the United States cannot seriously raise concerns about Russia’s lack of democracy, suppression of antiwar opponents, and other human rights abuses as long as the United States continues to provide unconditional arms transfers and other support for dictatorial regimes around the world.

In addition, the United States needs to reverse its stated goal to “weaken Russia,” stop the expansion of NATO, and finally get serious about nuclear disarmament. Such changes in policies will diminish Putin’s efforts to maintain popular support through manipulating nationalist fears among the Russian public.

It is not our place to insist the Ukrainians engage in nonviolent resistance while many Western governments—particularly the United States—pursue policies that make it difficult for nonviolent resistance in Russia to successfully challenge Putin. As with many other conflicts around the world, the best way of supporting nonviolent resistance abroad is to engage in it at home.


Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he served as founding director of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. He has led seminars on civil resistance globally and is the author of a series of articles and co-editor of Nonviolent Social Movements. His most recent book is Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, revised and expanded edition, 2022.)