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How the Russian people can end Putin’s war

AP Photo, File

Perhaps no group has greater power to stop Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine than ordinary Russians themselves. Accordingly, Putin has already ordered the arrest of around 15,000 protesters.   

His fear is understandable. Popular civil resistance movements have a remarkable record of ousting autocrats over the last century. Data show that such movements seeking maximalist goals — such as a political transition, self-determination or ending a foreign occupation — have achieved their objectives about 51 percent of the time between 1900 and 2019.   

{mosads}This begs the question of what would it take now for mobilized citizens to create a political transition in Russia?   

A critical factor in movement success is mass participation — large numbers of people from diverse walks of life unifying and acting collectively for shared goals. Worldwide, the 1990s was the high watermark that validates this point, with the average movement that decade generating public mobilization of 2.7 percent of a country’s population and achieving its goals 65 percent of the time. However, in recent years, public participation levels and success rates have decreased globally. For example, from 2010 to 2019, civil resistance movements produced an average mobilization of 1.3 percent of a country’s population and a corresponding success rate of only 34 percent.   

Over the last month, tens of thousands of courageous Russians demonstrating against the war represent a powerful symbol of opposition. However, with a national population of approximately 146 million, the degree of public nonviolent mobilization to effect a power shift in Russia could entail 1 million or more people. Generating this level of collective resistance requires addressing very real fears of engaging in open protest, and building a broader coalition that aligns anti-war resistance with economic grievances.


Facing Putin’s escalating repression, activists and organizers can increase public participation by developing low-risk tactics that maintain pressure on the government. History shows that when “tactics of concentration” such as mass demonstrations lead to arrest or worse, movements can switch to “tactics of dispersion” — such as decentralized acts of protest or refusal to engage in certain political or economic activity — to make it harder for authorities to engage in repression. For example, younger Russians are much more likely to oppose the war and might coordinate wearing certain colored clothing, or even use hand signals (akin to the “Hunger Games” gestures used by pro-democracy advocates in Thailand) as a sign of opposition.    

Movements have also used widespread displays of graffiti, posters and stickers to help break through fear and express a growing sense of confidence. These had a powerful effect when the Serbian Otpor (“Resistance”) movement famously propagated the phrases Gotov Je! (“He’s Finished!”) and Vreme Je! (“It’s Time!”) to spell the end of autocrat Slobodan Milosevic’s rule.    

Chileans expressed growing popular sentiment and solidarity by banging pots and pans at night to mark their opposition to brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet. When protests had diminishing effects during apartheid in South Africa, activists organized lower-risk consumer boycotts that had a strong impact on businesses. With time, tactics like these can embolden others to join in.    

Beyond diversifying tactics, reaching critical mass will likely require drawing in Russians whose primary concerns are economic. Sections of the Russian population that have traditionally been sympathetic to Putin have proven willing to mobilize in the past based on economic grievances, such as in 2005 and 2018 when the Russian government took actions that impacted their pensions, or in 2015 when it levied taxes on truck drivers.   

{mossecondads}To gain their participation, organizers need to craft messages that resonate with the concerns of Russians who live well beyond Moscow or St. Petersburg. Grievances must be woven into a coherent narrative that aligns common interests, identifies Putin as the roadblock to progress, and spells out a better future of shared peace and prosperity. State-controlled media will continue to blame Western sanctions for economic hardship. But over time, certain slogans that only Russians themselves can develop — perhaps along the lines of “Television is lying!,” “End the war to end the sanctions!” or “His war, our pain, and our pensions!” — could become particularly effective.    

The path would be far from easy. As the government attempts to silence dissent, it is understandable why Russians and others might be skeptical that political defiance could become widespread. Yet the Kremlin is apparently less skeptical since it is already producing propaganda videos to dissuade Russians from doing just that. Indeed, while many Russians may feel powerless in the wake of war and repression, ironically they are one of the few forces in the world with the potential leverage to stop Putin.

History shows their ability to unite against tyranny and exercise their power through sustained civil resistance. Through it, the Russian people may again restore their rightful place in their country and reclaim their country’s rightful place in the world.  

Hardy Merriman (@hardymerriman) is a senior advisor to the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. Stephen Crowley is a professor of Politics at Oberlin College and the author of “Putin’s Labor Dilemma: Russian Politics between Stability and Stagnation.” 

Tags Opposition to Vladimir Putin in Russia Politics of Russia Resistance movement Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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