Ukraine: is there a Nonviolent Solution?

By Michael Nagler

For Yulia and Yelena

When the horrific war on Ukraine broke out, six months ago now, many of us in the field of peace and nonviolence thought immediately of “Prague Spring.” In the spring of 1968, the Czech leader, Alexander Dubček, launched a reform called “socialism with a human face.” This was anathema to the Soviets, who shortly launched a three-pronged attack on Czechoslovakia from the other Warsaw Pact nations. The invasion, which was scheduled to overrun the country in four days, actually took eight months because the Czechs mounted a nonviolent defense: switching road signs around, refusing orders, fraternizing with Russian and other soldiers, etc. Prague Spring soon became one of the iconic episodes in the modern history of nonviolence.The parallels to Ukraine now are clear.

Nonviolent resistance is occurring in Ukraine. Courageous women have stood in the path of oncoming tanks, and here and there we hear of more organized and equally courageous episodes. This is, as always, duly ignored by the mainstream media due, I think, to our cultural blindness toward anything so out-of-paradigm as nonviolence. It has not prevailed in Ukraine, partly because of that ignorance both inside and outside the country; international support has historically been a major factor in the success of large-scale nonviolent campaigns.

The question remains for all of us, what can we do now?

If we have any influence on policy decisions, which we by and large do not, we can urge policymakers not to strengthen NATO but to strengthen the building nonviolent resistance within Ukraine. Does this mean we should call on Ukrainians not to fight back with conventional weapons?This is a gray area; but even Gandhi allowed that he’d be willing to call the Polish resistance to the Nazi invasion of 1939 “almost nonviolence,” because the Poles knew they would be “crushed to atoms” but chose a heroic, if doomed resistance to meek submission.Meek submission would be cowardice, and for Gandhi nothing could be more antithetical to nonviolence than cowardice.He also said, clarifying this dilemma further, that if a “madman with a sword” were to be raging abroad, one who “dispatched the lunatic” would be doing himself, the community, and even the “lunatic” a favor (as death is preferable to doing such damage to your soul as a violent rampage). Would there be nonviolent options even then? I would say yes, if some members of the community, possibly even one, would have the courage and the training (there we are again) to tackle extreme cases of what we roughly call “bystander intervention” today. The next best, and more realistic option would be to use force; the minimum necessary, which in such an advanced case might well be the maximum.

But there’s an important difference between the nonviolent person’s use of force, which s/he regrets, and anyone else’s use of what might seem to an outside observer as the very same force, and it’s not just that the latter might feel exultant where the former regretful. Namely, the nonviolent person would ask, and get her or his community to ask, ‘What happened here? How did we let people fall so low?’ And today of course we’d ask, ‘and get their hands on deadly weapons?’ 𑁋 Gandhi’s sword now metastasized into an AR 15.

The major lesson we should take away from the war on Ukraine, then is not to wait until outright violence breaks out if you can possibly intervene earlier. Looking at the world as a whole, we are nowhere near the unpreparedness of the Czechs in 1968. Gandhi has happened. King has happened. Nonviolence education and training are slowly happening. As George Lakey recently pointed out, “What strikes me as extraordinary about these and other successful cases (of nonviolence deployed against seemingly impossible odds) is that the nonviolent combatants engaged in their struggle without the benefit of training. What army commander would order troops into combat without training them first?” And Paul Chappell, himself an Iraq veteran and now Director of the Peace Literacy Institute, says in the Metta Center’s film, “The Third Harmony,” “Most activists have no training in how to wage peace. Most people have no training on how to wage peace. Most people are not taught basic peace skills. And what if people were as well-trained in waging peace as soldiers are in waging war?”

What if, indeed?But that would require rubbing our eyes as a culture and waking up from the cultural blindness mentioned earlier.Before that happens, before humanity reaches that Edenic state, those of us who work for peace in our respective ways (pioneers of that state, if you will), can certainly get trained in “basic peace skills” if we aren’t already. And yet, this would leave the rest of the world in that aforementioned blindness, and we should also be doing whatever we can about that much broader and more fundamental problem. We should do what readers of this journal do, but “outside the choir,” and on a broader scale: teach peace science, its theory, its history, its practicality.Its stark contrast to the more and more widespread phenomenon among veterans and active-duty military: PTSD.In all the literature on this subject one searches in vain for the glaringly obvious lesson it’s trying to tell us: we are not made to make war. We are not violent by the core of our nature, however violent we may have become in our attitudes and behavior by our cultural conditioning.

This brings us to an important element not often well represented even in peace literature: Who are we? Of course, this is a forbiddingly profound subject and most of us are not used to thinking about even a deep question like peace at such a fundamental level. Yet here is one of the really significant advances we as a species have made even since 1968: we have by and large seen our way past the ‘exciting’ Freudian vision of human nature as innately aggressive (against others) that prevailed in the 1970’s. Scientists have lead the way out of this dark wood just as they played an unfortunate role getting us into it. See the groundbreaking work of ethologist and primatologist Frans de Waal (also cited in “The Third Harmony”), his countryman Rutger Bregman, and before them our own anthropologist Ashley Montagu, among others.

We in the West have been slow to recognize the significance of this shift not only because of the culture endlessly propagated by the mass media but because, as Norman Cousins often pointed out, we do not really have an agreed-on vision of human nature in general 𑁋 what do we actually consist of as human beings.Here Gandhi had a great advantage.He inherited the millennia-old model of the human person as body, mind, and spirit. This is not, so far, very controversial. But his culture also saw these components in a configuration of what atomic scientist Amit Goswami has called “Downward Causality.” In other words, we are primarily consciousness, or spirit: consciousness shapes mind (the individual’s consciousness, on its various levels) and mind deeply influences matter, or body. Now, the quality of consciousness is that it has no boundaries in spacetime. In other words, as physician/writer Larry Dossey points out, insofar as we are consciousness we are one.

In short: as bodies we are quite separate; as minds we can widely interact, and as consciousness we are one.

Now, it is not essential for every peace activist to buy into or even understand this inspiring vision. Fortunately!But to be familiar with it, to understand it, and be at least able to explain it, with the science behind it, would be immensely helpful for scholars in this still-young field.

Gandhi never condemned people for taking to the sword for legitimate reasons, i.e. to defend one’s honor.But he always told them, “I can show you a better way.” This is what we should share with Ukrainians today and with any people in the path of wide-scale violence: ‘defend yourself as best you can, but we can now show you a better way. If the tragedy in Ukraine shows us this we will at least have taken something from it for a safer future.


Michael Nagler, PhD, is professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, where he founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program and taught upper-division courses on nonviolence, meditation and a seminar on the meaning of life. He is President of the Metta Center for Nonviolence and author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future, The Nonviolence Handbook, and The Third Harmony: Nonviolence and the New Story of Human Nature. Michael has spoken for the UN, the US Institute of Peace, and many academic and public venues for over forty years. He has lived at the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation’s ashram in Northern California since 1970.