On-the-ground resistance from Ukrainian civilians has been a critical response to the Russian invasion, in a world rendered more vulnerable by inadequate international laws and organisations.
ANU Centre for European Studies
The war on Ukraine has already changed the world. For those of us who have hitherto lived in peace and security in countries guarded by democracy and the rule of law, the world has become a scarier place.
Our world feels more vulnerable. It has become a place in which a large and aggressive neighbour can enter your territory, occupy your land, demolish your home, and kill your family. The life you had been living can be destroyed in an instant through brute force.
International legal structures can’t or won’t stop this. Assemblies of nations and edifices of international ethics are woefully inadequate or render themselves powerless to prevent the human suffering inflicted by the aggressor in an unprovoked attack.
Organisations that we trusted to secure peace will document the massacre of innocent citizen populations after the fact. International moral arbiters will record genocidal war crimes, the targeting of civilian infrastructure, and revenge acts of torture, murder and rape by military occupiers — while these atrocities continue to occur.
Born in Australia with parents from Ukraine and extended family still living there — family who are either fighting or evacuating — Russia’s war on Ukraine has changed my world. An antonym of vulnerability is resistance. The more vulnerable world I now live in is one that necessitates resistance more than ever, because unprovoked and inhumane aggression is a reality.
In this changed world, the response can only be defiance and action as new forms of defence.
Ukrainian resistance, resolute and effective, has redefined the relationship between the military and civilian spheres. We see Ukrainian civilians opposing.
They oppose one-on-one, with nothing more than words: a woman berates a Russian soldier on the street of her village; an elderly man refuses to give directions to the Russians troops standing alongside their armoured vehicle.
They oppose in groups: unprotected residents stand in front of Russian tanks, halting the slow grind into their village or town; locals gather in a park to make Molotov cocktails; in Russian-occupied towns, the population gathers in the main square holding Ukrainian flags and singing the national anthem.
A Ukranian mother carries her child across the border into Hungary. Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla
We see Ukrainian civilians assisting the military effort, displaced peoples and those who need to evacuate in hundreds of ingenious and pragmatic ways. Groups of women come together to weave camouflage nets for the army from discarded scraps of material. Other women gather to sew uniforms and essential items of clothing for soldiers.
Small makeshift workshops can now be found in social spaces, such as coffee shops and art galleries. A group of university students produce thermo-accumulators in a small factory that only weeks before made decorative candles. The canned heat can be used by a soldier to warm their body or heat their food. A short message has been printed on the label of each can: “With warmth in our hearts and with faith in you.”
In the city of Lviv, a team of eight senior citizens has been working around the clock. In the space of four weeks, they distributed some 50,000 kg of humanitarian aid to hospitals, refugees and the army.
One of these volunteers wrote to me recently, saying “our nation is amazing”. She explained her optimism thus: “We are steadfast, united and in solidarity with one another. Everyone is sewing Ukrainian flags. Everyone is singing Ukrainian songs. Everyone is planning mass protests against the occupiers. Hundreds of people at a time stand in front of tanks with no weapons in their hand. There are lines of men voluntarily waiting to enlist. There are lines outside each hospital, with people waiting to donate blood.”
This civic stance should not be underestimated. On 26 February, Inna Sovsun, a member of parliament who is herself not yet 40 years old, wrote in her blog that “Putin is fighting the entire country” and that Ukrainians “have a level of self-organisation which people in an authoritarian country are simply incapable of comprehending”.
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