The Medieval—and Highly Effective—Tactics of the Ukrainian Protests
Military-style methods help Euromaidan overwhelm state forces
· Robert Beckhusen in War is Boring
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.