Ukraine under Russian Occupation: What Can We Do? The Estonian Lesson

March 15, 2014
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Ukraine under Russian Occupation: What Can We Do? The Estonian Lesson

As Putin's tanks and infantry continue to roll into Crimea and mass on the northern and eastern borders of Ukraine, debate has heated up in social media about what to do. Understandably, many have called for an active response by Ukraine’s military, or for getting back out on the streets and hurling Molotov cocktails at Russian columns. This feeling is understandable, it is honorable, it is brave, and it is patriotic, but it is wrong-headed. It leads to failure, and the last thing that a patriot should do is give in to failure. Resisting the impulse to strike out at Russia requires discipline and tremendous nerve, but that is what the people on the Maidan demonstrated for three long months.

Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has proclaimed that Ukraine would not follow the script written by Moscow, a scenario of provocations and outrages that enabled Russia ultimately to destabilize and weaken Moldova and Georgia (“Kiev’s Message to Moscow,” New York Times, March 11, 2014). Responding to Russian provocations now would give Putin what he wants: a weakened, distracted, and divided Ukraine. After all the hard work and sacrifice made during the struggle against Yanukovych, falling into a trap set by Putin would be a terrible and costly mistake.

What should one do, then? If non-response to military invasion is a strategy, how does one maintain one’s sanity as columns of foreign troops drive across the borders? How does one counteract the feeling of humiliation at seeing Russians set up checkpoints and staff them with Berkut?

First of all, for those wishing to fight in Ukraine, if you must engage in war, save yourself for the insurgency. Anger is not a tactic; opportunistic, non-lethal sabotage is. If the Russian army moves further into Ukraine and keeps troop levels high in Crimea, there will be a time for low-level resistance activity that is disciplined, coordinated, and effective. That time has not yet arrived. The forces leading the attack in Crimea are probably the best-trained troops in the Russian military. Throwing a brick at them would be like charging a tank with a saber. All you would do is become a sticky substance in a tank tread; your tragic death would be nothing more than a funny story told by the jerk who killed you.

The key is to wait. The Russian military won’t keep elite troops in Ukraine as occupation forces. Draftees with much less training and older equipment will follow. These are the troops to be targeted, always nonviolently. They should be talked to, cajoled, sometimes fed. US military doctrine states that insurgencies are almost impossible to defeat because the insurgent needs to work only 1 day out of 30, while the occupier must work all day every day, 365 days (and nights) of the year. The occupation will burn out and the Russian troops will leave. Make sure that you are still alive when that happens, and that the only thing you have destroyed is the Russians’ will to fight Ukraine.

Most important, though, is the need for a stronger, more democratic Ukraine. There will never be a good time to build it. Russia will always be Ukraine’s neighbor, and the downfall of the corrupt regime in Moscow is probably a long way off. Threats and attacks on Ukrainian unity, on its infrastructure, its computer networks, and its economic wellbeing may very well last our lifetime. What good things will you have done for your country in the meantime?

Events in Europe of the past few days might give a place to start. Right now, the US and the EU are preparing aid packages for Ukraine, ranging from loan guarantees and preferential tariffs on Ukrainian goods to support for the strengthening of civic society. These are concrete measures that only a well-organized society can take full advantage of. Do you know which agricultural products will be positively affected by lower EU tariffs? Do you know which Ukrainian industries might benefit from programs to help modernize old equipment and facilities? Ukrainian society needs help assimilating and exploiting this aid to the fullest. The donor countries need help getting aid to the right places, not just into some oligarch’s pocket. I’m sure that Ukrainians have better ideas than I do about developing an economy that benefits everyone. But that work needs to start now.

Full disclosure: By ancestry, I am half Norwegian and half Estonian. I descend from inhabitants of two of the least-populated countries in Europe. Russians do not tremble in fear of the Estonian navy or army, and the country has been subjected to attack, occupation, ethnic cleansing, and—more recently—the first cyber war in history by Russia. Striking back directly was never an option for the Estonians, but their military disadvantage did not ordain failure or defeat. Estonia has managed to survive to this day and now, with membership in the EU and NATO, it is no longer the easy military target it once was for Russia. It would never have gotten this far, however, if the government and people had not learned to buffer or deflect attacks from Russia and recover as quickly as possible. A dogged will to survive has been the key.

Being vulnerable to destabilizing attacks by a hostile and cynical regime is a permanent situation for all of Russia's neighbors. We must keep the faith that one day the country's embattled pro-democracy movements will turn the tide and create a new, cooperative, and ultimately more stable Russia, but that time seems a long way off. Until then, Russia’s neighbors must endure its destabilizing and destructive behavior without being destroyed by it. My father once said to me, "There are times in life when just surviving is victory." For the people of today’s Ukraine, this is one of those times.

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