The Cost of Opposition Violence in Ukraine

The past several weeks have been tenuous for Ukraine. From armed clashes between protesters and riot police officers in Kiev to Putin’s recent move to deploy troops to Crimea, the world is watching Ukraine to see what will happen next. Will NATO respond to Russia’s move with sanctions and/or military intervention? Will the new government in Kiev be strong enough to carry out the will the people? Will Ukraine go the way of Czechoslovakia and split in two? The situation, regardless of how it turns out, provides a good opportunity to explore the nature of violence and why non-violent discipline is critical.

The protests in Ukraine give insight into why opposition movements may choose violent instead of non-violent means to achieve their goals. Namely, there may be some short-term benefits to violence. The opposition has managed to force Yanukovych out of the country and the creation of a new government is well underway. Also, violence allows for the “strategic leninization” of a movement. This entails the creation of elitist vanguards or parties to head the movement. Non-violence allows large parts of the population to be involved, but violence shifts the power to those organizations that have the capability to do battle. Thus, it was well within the short-term rational self-interest for battle-ready organizations like Svoboda to fight the riot police in the streets. Violence shifts the ownership of the revolution from the populace and into the hands of elitist structures.

The problem with this line of thought is obvious. Violence ups-the-ante in a conflict. Would Putin have sent troops into Crimea if protesters had not fought the police in Kiev? The violence in Kiev (real and perceived) also provided a perfect opportunity to shift the discussion away from the ground in Ukraine. Instead, the discussion is focused on actors like the Russian Federation and NATO. Given the history of revolutions in that part of the world, it seems likely that Putin would have not intervened if there were not medieval style battles in western Ukraine.

This is not the first time that the issue of significant Russian populations being in a revolutionary country has been dealt with. What comes up to mind first is Russia’s 2008 intervention in Georgia and Russian international lawyers are pointing to it as precedence. However, this situation is hardly comparable to that of Ukraine. As of now, the new government has not actually attacked Crimea. As Chris Borgen over at Opinio Juris says in his analysis of the Russia’s legal argument for intervention:

“As in the Georgian intervention, Putin focuses the need to protect Russian nationals and the importance of self-defense of Russian troops. But, as mentioned above, I have seen no credible reports that either the Russian naval base in Sevastopol or the majority ethnic Russian population of Crimea was ever threatened by the Ukrainian government.”

The situation on the ground prior to Putin’s intervention is probably more comparable to the revolutionary Baltic States.  Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all had significant Russian minority populations and even Soviet troops within their borders. For the most part, the situations were handled non-violently and negotiations were key. The Albert Einstein institution has a number of monographs examining these revolutions in detail.

Hopefully, the western response to Putin’s intervention will take lessons from the past and not worsen the already escalated conflict. As for the movement in western Ukraine, the structures created by the violent portion of the movement (“strategic leninization”) may continue to gain more power as their non-violent compatriots become more marginalized. So what is the cost of violence in Ukraine? The focus of the discussion has moved anyway from the Ukrainian people.


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