The Medieval—and Highly Effective—Tactics of the Ukrainian Protests
Military-style methods help Euromaidan overwhelm state forces
Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement is in control of the capital. The autocratic and ostrich-raising Pres. Viktor Yanukovych has fled Kiev, and the Ukrainian parliament has voted him out of power.
For now, it’s a dramatic victory for the protesters, who have sought closer ties with the European Union and an end to the corruption represented by Yanukovych. It’s especially stunning considering the protesters had—on several occasions—seemed close to defeat.
But to understand why the protests succeeded in toppling Yanukovych, it’s worth taking a glance at its strategies and military-style tactics. The protesters not only built a broad and inclusive coalition, but innovated where it mattered most: on the streets.
Really, it turned medieval.
Protesters shot fireworks with makeshift launchers. In combination with throwing stones and using slingshots, they overwhelmed disoriented Berkut special forces units, who were pelted with flying objects as fireworks exploded around them.
Protesters wore military helmets and carried makeshift—or captured—shields. Wooden boards were used to protect their lower legs from shrapnel the police taped to exploding stun grenades.
Among the array of homemade weapons, some were perhaps a little too ambitious. A crude trebuchet—a type of medieval catapult which uses a counterweight to fling objects—was overrun and dismantled.
To shield themselves from the onslaught, the police special forces units known as Berkut adopted distinct testudo formations. This packed shield formation was used by the Roman Empire, developed to shield infantry units from arrows. The first line holds its shields forward, with each preceding line holding their shields towards the sky.
The problem with this tactic? It makes you much slower.
Euromaidan’s long tail
But behind the barricades, there were thousands of people working together to support the front lines. It’s an important lesson that logistics is what ultimately wins battles.
While the demonstrators at the barricades skewed younger, older Maidan activists ferried supplies and filled sandbags.
Others staffed portable kitchens set up at the main encampment at Kiev’s Independence Square. When there was ample snow on the ground, they shoveled it into bags to bolster the barricades up to 10 feet high.
These jobs were not only necessary, they also provided a sense of purpose for demonstrators, who through age, health or disability couldn’t risk the fast and brutal nature of street fighting.
The protesters helped recruit women into street-fighting groups through a female-led women’s brigade. The brigade also schooled hundreds of female volunteers in self-defense and riot tactics.
All of this added up to enable the demonstrators to resist stronger, better trained and better equipped riot police.
In one of the more stunning scenes on Feb. 18, a 15-ton BTR-80 armored vehicle drove directly towards the Maidan barricades when it was set ablaze by dozens of Molotov cocktails.
Workshops could quickly produce large numbers of Molotovs around the clock. Activists tore stones and bricks from the pavement and passed them to the barricades.
A triage centers—and a morgue—set up in the Hotel Ukraine treated the wounded and housed the dead.
Protesters armed with clubs were able to surround and capture isolated police units, stealing their shields and equipment. When the police resorted to killing demonstrators with sniper fire, the protesters used walls of burning tires to block out the snipers’ scopes.
And they have a broad coalition
There are important lessons here for democratic movements facing down authoritarian regimes.
For one, get people involved. Make sure participants have a purpose. Use several tactics at once, and combine them for an overwhelming advantage. Force the authorities to respond to your tactics, rather than the reverse.
The protesters were also inclusive, which helped bolster their numbers. But this remains controversial.
In addition to the two main—and moderate—opposition parties and thousands of unaffiliated activists, the protests included far-right nationalists associated with the extreme right-wing Svoboda party and the fighting units known as the Right Sector.
The result was an awkward non-aggression pact between left and right.
According to Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher at University College London who specializes in Eastern European far right movements, one reason for the truce is necessity. The main target was Yanukovych. The other reason? Once Yanukovych is gone, the far right parties will have a harder time finding new recruits.
The protests are “among other things, a national revolution against the Kremlin’s imperialism and a nationalist uprising against Russia’s destructive influence on Ukraine,” he blogged.
That’s helping fuel the far right.
“Those who separate these two issues or crack down on the Ukrainian far right without recognizing the urgent need for national independence will never be successful in their attempts to neutralize the far right,” he added. “Moreover, they can make the situation worse.”
But if there’s anything that tipped the balance, at least for now, it’s the protesters’ willingness to fight. “I’m ready to fight for my human rights and my country, and the better life of my country,” a women’s brigade fighter told Al Jazeera. “Even to death.”