What would Gandhi do in Ukraine?

Ed Frauenheim
4 min readFeb 27, 2022

What if Putin’s invasion was met with nonviolent resistance — and even bowls of borscht?

“Gandhi statue” by vpickering is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

“Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.” — Mohandas Gandhi

I’ve been watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine with the same rage and indignation that seems to be a worldwide reaction.

How dare Putin bomb a peaceful, non-threatening nation? How could he and his Russian soldiers kill civilians and prompt everyday Ukrainians to flee or take up arms — at times with tears in their eyes and fear in their hearts?

I’ve been inspired by the courage of those Ukrainian citizens-turned-soldiers and the way they’ve slowed the Russian onslaught, against long odds. I’ve reveled in Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for ammunition rather than a ride out of the country. And I cheered on the Ukrainian soldiers who told Russian forces to “go fuck yourselves.”

But something wasn’t sitting right for me in all this fight-fire-with-fire ire.

In the back of my mind, something was tugging at my sleeve. Or someone. Or someones.

Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela.

This triumvirate of nonviolence champions prompted me to wonder if there could be a different response to Putin’s aggression. What would Gandhi do in Ukraine? Or MLK Jr.? Or Mandela?

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I’m not exactly sure. But I don’t think it would be shooting back at the Russians.

I suspect they would meet the invasion with a form of nonviolent resistance. Likely a creative one, like Gandhi’s salt march that symbolically challenged the tyranny of British rule in India.

Given the close ties between Russia and Ukraine, I wonder if that creative response could have begun with hospitality. Could Ukrainians have welcomed Russian troops into their homes and served them one of the country’s most famous dishes, Borscht soup? And then, as the day wore on, politely told the Russians that it was time for them to return home?

If the Russians didn’t, then the non-cooperative, nonviolent resistance would begin in earnest. This could take the form of public protests and occupying the streets — sitting down and refusing to budge as tanks rolled in.

Sure, such nonviolent tactics likely would lead to casualties and deaths. They would take great courage. But isn’t that what is happening already?

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Could the best way to stand up to the bully Putin be to sit down?

Would gestures of generosity, vulnerability and sacrifice lead some Russian troops to quit? Would they change hearts in Russia? Perhaps even among the elite leaders Putin needs to remain in power?

Would they galvanize global support for Ukraine even more?

Consider the heart-melting impact of the way the Ukrainians’ already are letting captured Russian soldiers call their families.

Could kindness kill this invasion?

Haven’t we learned yet that hate cannot beat hate? That the only way to beat hate is with love?

That’s an urgent lesson today but one that dates all the way back to Jesus — another common hero for many Ukrainians and Russians alike.

Maybe it’s not too late for the Ukrainians to adopt some of the wisdom of nonviolence leaders. Mandela is an inspiration here. By laying down firearms and opening his arms to his captors, he helped inspire the peaceful reconciliation of a bloody, vicious conflict.

My wife reminded me that successful nonviolence campaigns in the past, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s racial desegregation initiatives in the 1960s, required extensive training of volunteers. Those civil rights activists prepared extensively to weather physical abuse, mockery and jail time.

I’m not aware of Ukrainians engaging in such nonviolence training. That’s part of what makes my suggestions of nonviolent resistance in Ukraine unlikely, I know.

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But could the rest of us start now? Could people across the globe begin mass trainings in nonviolent civil disobedience to injustice? Could we replace massive military budgets with civilian preparation for hostile encounters?

There’s already momentum in this direction in the way many school children are learning to resolve conflicts in peaceful ways. Through the “Social-Emotional Learning” and emotional intelligence movements, children are learning how to challenge bullies. They are learning to acknowledge and manage feelings like anger, such that they don’t lash out in violent ways.

Come to think of it, non-violence training and education may be exactly what the world needs to prevent the rise of another Putin — a man who seems wounded by the end of the Cold War and stuck in a macho quest for revenge.

Could a global commitment to nonviolence allow us to prevent any more tragic, infuriating invasions?

Perhaps it is worth a shot.

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Ed Frauenheim

I write about work, culture and masculinity. Concerned about the present but hopeful about the future.