The Limits to Political Protest

Limits to Political Protest
Russian shelling of Donetsk aftermath, c. March 2022 from Wikimedia

Ukraine Shows the Limits to Political Protest

Last week a listener of the podcast emailed me. She raised the possibility of civil resistance as an alternative for Ukraine to oppose Russia’s military invasion. Some readers will dismiss the idea as naive. However, the publication of Why Civil Resistance Works by¬†Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan brought new energy to the idea of unarmed resistance as a political tactic rather than just a moral position. Their study demonstrated the effectiveness of civil resistance campaigns to bring about regime transitions. So, my listener wondered whether civil resistance was a more appropriate tactic toward Russian aggression.

I directed her toward this past week’s conversation with Mark Beissinger. He helps explains the effectiveness of civil resistance campaigns, but also provides explanations for the limits to political protest. So, Beissinger does build on the work of civil resistance scholars like Chenoweth and Stephan. But he also clarifies their findings in important ways. He argues space matters. Ukrainian cities lack proximity to political power in Russia. Political protest cannot force the hand of leaders in Russia when their efforts are so far removed from its assailants. Open spaces make repression difficult, because the regime cannot hide its actions. In contrast, the Kremlin has hidden its atrocities in Ukraine from the Russian people.

At the same time, protests have broken out in Russian occupied cities in Ukraine. They are important, because they show Ukrainian opposition to Russia even in the Donbas. So, I don’t want to diminish their efforts. But they are far from the Kremlin, so they are unlikely to turn the tide of the war on their own. Of course, the protests have help from ongoing Ukrainian military successes. Indeed, Ukrainians will continue to oppose Russia on multiple fronts and with many different tactics.

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