Ukraine Needs a Civil Defense Strategy

When the Lithuanian government recently published a survival manual, informally dubbed the “Russian Invasion Manual”, for  its citizens, the news was met with mixed reactions in Lithuania and internationally. The pamphlet, officially titled “How to act in extreme situations or instances of war”, provides general survival tips as well as instructions for how to resist foreign occupiers.
Western news media followed the story with a level of amused credulity, wondering if the pamphlet will soon be available in schools and public libraries. Russian press was, predictably, less sanguine in its assessment.
At a press conference announcing the release of the manual, Lithuanian Defense Minister Juozas Olekas made the point of the manual quite clear. “Russia’s recurring aggression against its neighbors – presently in Ukraine,” has made “the manual’s publication all the more urgent,” he said. “When Russia started its aggression in Ukraine, here in Lithuania our citizens understood that our neighbor is not friendly.”
The manual instructs Lithuanians how to survive foreign occupation and war, advising citizens on how to both stay safe and organize nonviolent resistance. Lithuanians are asked to stage protests, strikes, take to social media, and even target the enemy’s cyber infrastructure through hacking. In addition, the Lithuanian government advises that people either avoid work or at  the very least underperform.
Despite the apparent novelty of the Lithuanian government publishing the survival guide, this is no joke. Vilnius’ concerns  of a Russian ‘hybrid war’ against the Baltic states is to many far from alarmist in the wake of the annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine. The Baltic states’ large ethnic Russian population, small geographic size, historical subjugation, and territorial proximity make the Russian threat particularly salient. Despite Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia’s NATO memberships, there are valid fears that the NATO alliance will be unwilling or unable to mount effective resistance against the Russian Federation in the case of invasion. After all, vague security assurances for Ukraine from the United States and United Kingdom did not prevent the annexation of Crimea and de facto loss of a chunk of eastern Ukraine.
Neither is the idea of “civilian defense” particularly ground-breaking as a defense strategy. In fact, a forward-looking
policy of organized civil resistance in the event of foreign occupation is at least centuries old. For smaller countries flanked by much more powerful neighbors, conventional deterrence and military resistance is unlikely to be successful. However, advance preparation in the threat of potential invasion, commitment to nonviolent resistance and disruption by civilians, and even preparation in underground active self-defense are proven strategies.
Karl Mueller, Ph.D., a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation global think tank, describes civilian defense
as a strategy to make a foreign occupation unpalatable for the occupying army. In a telephone interview with Mueller through his office in Arlington, Virginia, he explained, “civilian defense is mostly non-violent and is focused on making a country or territory indigestible to an occupier” and “would involve non-violence, non-cooperation, and slacking at work” to undermine the foreign occupation. Such a strategy must make the probable costs of an invasion higher than the possible benefits. “It is something that you would most associate with a country that is on its own,” that is not a participant in a military alliance, said Mueller. Such a strategy should prepare its citizenry for the possibility of foreign invasion, and make this threat credibility to potential occupiers.
It would also give its citizens a unifying sense of purpose that would otherwise be crushed by the occupation.
The concept of “civilian defense” has long been the core of Switzerland’s defense strategy. As a tiny, neutral, and landlocked nation bordered by much larger neighbors and potential adversaries, the Swiss have fostered a culture of both civilian resistance and armed insurgency in the case of invasion. While Swiss military resistance to invasion would likely be futile, Switzerland could make any occupation of their land far too costly with a combination of civil disobedience, resistance, local militias, and national solidarity. Effective deterrence need not require military parity.
In the wake of increased violence in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, as well as clear evidence that the Russian government is only increasing its material and financial support for its proxies, the Ukrainian government can likely benefit from the historical experience of Switzerland and recent moves by Lithuania. What Ukraine lacks in conventional deterrence can be at least partially compensated by a citizenry armed with knowledge of how to ensure both personal safety and carry out acts of civil disobedience against occupiers. Like Lithuania, Ukraine needs to direct how its citizens can respond should their region come under the control of the Russian military or its proxies.
The Ukrainian government, in cooperation with the various civil society groups that have emerged since Euromaidan, should work on a similar survival manual that develops a strategy for civilian defense. Many components of such a civilian defense plan have actually emerged spontaneously in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The proliferation of private initiatives to expose and counter Russian propaganda, groups supporting Ukrainian soldiers and civilians in the east, and even the volunteer battalions have all raised the costs of Kremlin intervention.
The key, however, is whether the Russians believe that Ukrainians will actually carry through with meaningful resistance.
“Is it a credible threat, or will it be too hard to coordinate?” said Mueller.
Some Ukrainian security experts also agree that a civilian defensive approach at the state-level can benefit the country.
Oleksiy Melnyk, the director of Foreign Relations and International Security Program at the Kyiv-based Razumkov Centre think tank, believes that the Lithuanian initiative is a positive development that Ukrainian authorities can adopt. “Such a decision serves two roles,” said Melnyk in a telephone interview. “First, the Lithuanian population gains essential knowledge of what to do in case of an external military aggression,” and second a potential aggressor “may reconsider its expansionist plans due to the rising costs of invasion.” Although Ukrainian civil society has already raised awareness about some aspects of civilian defense, this has not been nearly sufficient. “The state should fulfill its functions,” as “volunteers and civic activists can only contribute but not replace state mechanisms.”
The Ukrainian people and government can greatly benefit from such a plan in the case that Russia is seriously considering expanding its territory, which the recent offensive in Donbas at least partially corroborates. A citizenry armed with knowledge for personal safety, as well as the tools to effectively resist occupation through both peaceful and possibly more confrontational means could be an important adjunct to Ukraine’s defense strategy. At the very least, it wouldn’t hurt, say Melnyk and Mueller. Even if civilian defense fails to prevent further aggression on its own, plans for civilian resistance can garner more international sympathy to the situation and global support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
While there are some risks of such a proposal—particularly increased militarization of the country and proliferation of a “besieged” mentality—a civilian defense strategy that focuses on education and safety in conjunction with civilian resistance has the potential to serve as a potent tool in the Ukrainian defensive arsenal.
Chris Dunnett (@ccdunnett), Ukraine Crisis Media Center