On May 15, thousands of unarmed residents and steelworkers of the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol did nonviolently what a bloody attack by Ukrainian troops six days earlier was unable to: rid the region’s second-largest city of armed pro-Russian separatists who had held key buildings and other parts of the city for weeks. Smaller protests have taken place in other cities in eastern Ukraine held by separatists.
In the eastern cities targeted by armed pro-Russian militias, such as Donetsk, Lugansk, and Krivy Rig, large nonviolent protests in support of national unity have taken place in recent weeks. (The photo above shows a pro-Ukrainian unity rally in Lugansk on April 18.) But as the country prepared for its presidential election on May 25, there was also an uptick in violence. In particular, a separatist attack on a government checkpoint just before the election left 16 dead; shortly after the polls closed on Sunday, the Ukrainian government launched bloody airstrikes against separatists who had taken control of the Donetsk airport. Given this turbulent context, a great deal depends on whether Ukrainian civil society relies on nonviolent action in the coming weeks and months.
A reliance on nonviolent methods makes it far more difficult for the separatists — and their allies in Russia — to claim the majority of the region’s people are on their side. Military operations by the Ukrainian armed forces, as well as the mob violence that resulted in the deaths of more than 40 ethnic Russians in Odessa a few weeks ago, have already done much to fan anti-government sentiment. Relying on local groups to use peaceful resistance — rather than sending in counterterrorism squads from Kiev or arming local pro-Kiev militias — avoids the risk of turning residents against the central government. It was precisely such violent threats that Putin used, back in March, to justify his annexation of Crimea on the grounds that Russian-speaking people needed “protection.”