Peaceful activists resist Russians in occupied Ukraine

Ivan, a coordinator at Yellow Ribbon, a peaceful resistance movement, walks past Ukrainian flags commemorating fallen soldiers in Kyiv (Anatolii STEPANOV)
Ivan, a coordinator at Yellow Ribbon, a peaceful resistance movement, walks past Ukrainian flags commemorating fallen soldiers in Kyiv (Anatolii STEPANOV)

The national anthem of Ukraine is broadcast at a bus stop in the pro-Russian separatist stronghold of Lugansk as locals go about their daily business.

"Our enemies will die, as the dew does in the sunshine, and we, too, brothers, we'll live happily in our land," go the famous lyrics.

This month members of a Ukrainian resistance movement broadcast Kyiv's anthem in Lugansk to celebrate Independence Day on August 24 and posted the shaky cellphone video, surreptitiously shot to avoid attention, on social media.

It was one of several initiatives carried out by members of the Yellow Ribbon Civil Resistance Movement, which was awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize last year.

Ivan, one of the movement's coordinators, said its members were present in big cities from Lugansk to Yalta in Crimea which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

"We are in all occupied cities," said Ivan, who lived in Kherson when it was held by the Russians.

Ivan, who is in his 20s, declined to give his family name for security reasons.

The Yellow Ribbon movement was born in April 2022 in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, which was under Russian occupation for more than eight months last year. Kyiv took back the city in November 2022.

During the occupation, Kherson residents staged protests against Moscow's troops who fired warning shots in response.

Over time, the movement has expanded its reach.

Ivan said the goal of the non-violent movement was to provide moral support to Ukrainians and "show them you're not alone and we need to resist."

"We try to help Ukrainians," he told AFP during an interview in Kyiv.

- Posters and ping-pong balls -

The movement's members are anonymous, and Ivan could not provide their precise numbers.

According to estimates, women make up around 70 percent of the group's members in Kherson.

"Maybe men want to do more violent things," he said.

Ivan insisted on the "peaceful and non-violent" nature of the actions of the movement, which he says has no links to the Ukrainian security service.

"We have a lot of activities," he said, adding that they were active on social media.

Activists put up pro-Kyiv posters and leave ping-pong balls that feature slogans such as "This is Ukraine" in public spaces.

They also tie ribbons in the blue-and-yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag and draw graffiti.

While the initiatives might seem trivial to some observers, Ivan said their work was risky.

Russia-installed officials have branded Ukrainians supporting Kyiv "Ukronazi."

Supporters of the Kremlin's assault on Ukraine allege Kyiv's treatment of Russian speakers in the country is comparable with the actions of Nazi Germany.

Moscow-installed authorities have also pressured residents into adopting the Russian nationality and carried out regular arrests.

"A lot of people were arrested in Crimea or Lugansk, or Melitopol because they were wearing blue and yellow T-shirts," said Ivan.

- Discreet recruitment -

Given the risks, the group's recruitment process is carried out with the help of an anonymous chatbot, a conversational software based on artificial intelligence.

"We have 10,000 active users in our chatbot," said the coordinator.

The bot puts activists in contact with local coordinators, who advise them on how to act and send footage safely.

Ivan said the activists do not share any information about the positions of the Russian forces with the Ukrainian army.

"If you are transmitting information about Russians," he said, "you are a military target for Russians, and it's more dangerous, of course."

The latest posts by the peaceful resistance fighters target preparations for local elections scheduled to take place in Russia and in four partially controlled Ukrainian regions in September.

Last year Moscow announced it had annexed the regions of Lugansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson despite never fully controlling them.

Short videos from the resistance activists show newspapers being burnt and posters being torn down.

One caption reads: "We are destroying the occupiers' pre-election propaganda in Lugansk".

Ivan said that the successes of the Kyiv army's gruelling counteroffensive offered Ukrainians new hope.

"People are more motivated than ever," he said.