Ukraine: What is the word for What is Happening There?

By Daisy Sindelar via RFE/RL

Oleksandr Chernov, a doctor and journalist from eastern Ukraine, spent 10 days as a captive of pro-Russian separatists based in Slovyansk. 

During that time he was blindfolded, brutally beaten, and interrogated by separatist leader Igor Strelkov. He watched a hardened militant break down in tears after accidentally shooting a stray dog. And he heard countless examples of how the months of violence in Donbas had taken a deadly personal toll. 

"Some people's houses had been bombed, or their children's schools. Some of their wives had been seriously injured. So they picked up their weapons and went out to fight," Chernov says. "This is a war, after all." 

But is it? As fighting escalates on Ukraine's eastern front between a hazy mix of pro-Russian mercenaries, Ukrainian army soldiers, and volunteers of every stripe, officials have tied themselves in linguistic knots attempting to define what, exactly, is going on in Ukraine. 

News agencies ignited a firestorm on August 28 when they quoted Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as saying that Russian troops had "invaded" Ukraine.

Some agencies later changed their translation from "invaded" to "entered." But the genie was already out of the bottle. 

Ukraine's ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) publicly called the conflict an invasion. So did the Australian prime minister, and the foreign ministers of Latvia and Lithuania. So, in a potentially poor career move, did a human rights adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin. And Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, seizing on hashtag politics, appeared to assert via Twitter that what was taking place was, in fact, an invasion. 

Other officials, however, were more cautious in their rhetoric. British Prime Minister David Cameron has called the current situation in Ukraine a "large-scale incursion." The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine said Russia was "intervening directly." A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel used the term "military intervention." And U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking August 28, produced the seemingly oxymoronic "ongoing incursion." 

David Kaufman, who heads the Center for the Study of Modern Conflict at Scotland's University of Edinburgh, suggests that choosing between "incursion" and "invasion" comes down to what the speaker wants to be seen as thinking about Putin's long-term intent. 

"An invasion would suggest that there's an air of permanence about whether or not these troops are going to stay," he says. "An incursion is more limited, and it would suggest that maybe these troops are there temporarily, and that what they're doing isn't necessarily something that Russia might suggest as being permanent." 

'Little Green Men'

Moscow, which has long sought to keep its fingerprints off the Ukraine conflict, has unsurprisingly rejected the notion of an invasion, despite NATO saying at least 1,000 Russian troops and hardware are on Ukrainian territory. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said August 29 there was "no proof" of an invasion. Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the head of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, said the Russian troops were merely volunteering their services, "rather than taking their vacations at the beach." At least one humorist who tweets as a would-be Putin suggested that what was taking place was less an invasion and more a romantic reconciliation.  

Linguistic ambiguity has been a hallmark of the Ukrainian conflict from the beginning, when Russia coined the terms "little green men" and "polite people" to avoid admitting that the insignia-free forces entering and annexing Crimea were in fact Russian soldiers. 

Since then, Moscow has attempted to put even more verbal distance between itself and the conflict in Ukraine, referring to native-born Russian separatists as "Ukrainian rebels" and "pro-Russian fighters" and at times insisting that the violence is a "civil war" between Ukrainian "fascists" and Russian-speaking civilians. 

Putin on August 28 went so far as to evoke the term "Novorossia," or New Russia — a tsarist-era label for the broad strip of land crossing from southern Ukraine into Moldova's breakaway, pro-Russian region of Transdniester. 

Military experts say such terminology permits Putin to maintain the illusion that Russia is not formally involved in Ukraine, where nearly 2,600 people have been killed as a result of the conflict. But the wordplay works to the advantage of the other parties as well, by allowing Ukrainian and international officials, wary of antagonizing a still-powerful Kremlin, to stop short of accusing Russia of waging war. 

Such a step would dramatically expand the parameters of military action, opening the way for larger troop deployments, cross-border air raids, and "deeper" targeting inside both Ukraine and Russia. It's a scenario that is deeply distasteful, both for Ukraine and for the West, which is eager to avoid military engagement with Russia. 

'Interstate Face-Off'

Reuters in July cited Western officials as saying that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had confidentially categorized the situation in Ukraine as a war. 

According to the report, the ICRC, which has made no public statement, informed Ukraine and Russia privately of its assessment. (Officially, the ICRC has categorized the situation in Ukraine as a "noninternational armed conflict.") 

If true, the designation is significant, because it has the potential to render both Kyiv and Moscow responsible for war crimes committed by their forces — including, but not limited to, the suspected shooting-down of passenger jet MH17 by pro-Russian fighters. 

But Christopher Langton, a British Army veteran who now heads the Independent Conflict Research and Analysis center, says it is highly unlikely that either Ukraine or Russia will make a formal declaration of war. 

He adds that the term itself — which is traditionally defined as mutual military action between two or more states — is no longer "fashionable" in a world marked by increasingly asymmetric, non-state insurgencies. 

"The last time I think anybody formally declared war was in the Second World War," says Langton. "It's almost seen as an unnecessary thing to do. You know, we didn't declare war on Serbia. No war was declared on Iraq."

What we're seeing in Ukraine, he says, "is the nearest thing to an interstate face-off." Declaring war, he adds, "would be a major step which could lead down some very dark alleys. And that's why I don't think either side are going to use it." 

With or without a declaration, however, many of Russia's harshest critics — including Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski — say there's only one word for what's going on in Ukraine. 

"If it looks like a war, sounds like a war and kills like a war," Sikorski tweeted on August 29. "It is a war."

Daisy Sindelar

Yana Polyanska of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report

Mirrored from RFE/RL

Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

PBS Newshour: “What’s driving Russia to raise the stakes in Ukraine?”

8 Responses

  1. Drivel. While Russia is undoubtedly supporting the Ukraine militia under the table, so is the US and NATO supporting the Ukraine military under the table.

    So what? The bottom line is the US overthrew a democratically elected (if corrupt) government and replaced it with a bunch of neo-Nazis with the intent of putting NATO military bases on Russia’s borders.

    Putin has been EXTREMELY FORBEARING by not immediately invading Ukraine and stomping the neo-Nazis flat. Supporting the pro-Russian rebels is the least he could do and he’s done it in the least encroaching manner possible. He has no interest in “invading” or “annexing” a failed state like the Ukraine unless that’s the only way to keep NATO out.

    It’s Obama, irritated that Putin out-maneuvered him last year on Syria, the neocons in the State Department, and the poodles in the EU who are responsible for this mess. Not Putin. And not Russia.

    • I see that several readers arrived before me to say that they agree with you.

      Another person who agrees with you is the very well informed retired French diplomat Pierre Charasse who writes in French and Spanish mostly, in his blog La Tour de Babel, link to His stuff on the Ukraine is in both these languages between March 20 (20 mars) and March 28 (28 mars). It is regrettable that this blog seems not to be well known, allthough Charasse is well known in France. Also too bad that he doesn’t write more often.

  2. Richard Steven Hack, I agree.

    The CIA and Mayla agencies have stated it’s likely Kiev forces – not Russian federalists – shot down the plan has been ignored by corporate western media, govt officials. Seems unlikely Kiev would have downed that plan w/o approval from Washington and thus Obama. Also Joe Biden’s son heads up U.S. fracking interests in eastern Ukriane….so Dick Cheney/Haliburton/Iraq is now Joe Biden/Fracking/Ukraine.

    It’s all about fracking, and Russia stands in the way, so Obama is promoting war with Russia.

  3. I see the Putinists beat me to the first post. Nice try, bozos, but nobody believes your lies.

    FACT: Ukraine had a democratic mass protest against a corrupt thief and mass-murderer, former President Victor Yanukovych, whose thugs shot down dozens of unarmed protesters on Maidan square in Kiev. FACT: Yanukovych was subsequently impeached and removed from office by a legal quorum of the democratically elected parliament of Ukraine. FACT: Ukraine then elected Peter Poroshenko as President (he won 55% of the vote) in May 2014 in a free, fair vote. FACT: Russia illegally annexed Crimea and has been waging a war of imperial aggression against eastern Ukraine ever since (thousands of Russian troops and tanks are currently on Ukrainian soil as we speak — among their other crimes, a Russian Army SA-11 unit shot down that MH-17 airliner, murdering three hundred innocent civilians). FACT: The vast majority of Ukrainians do NOT want to join Russia, and the populations of the regions of Donetsk and Luzhansk which Russian forces have invaded are 70% ethnic Ukrainian. FACT: Part of this war is an unspeakably evil lie campaign by Russia’s state-owned media and its paid army of online trolls to smear and defame Ukraine as a fascist junta, a claim which is, frankly, completely insane. FACT: Ukraine is a democracy under attack by an imperialist invader, and should be supported by anyone with the slightest bit of decency or integrity.

    I’m sorry to report that many so-called Leftists have fallen into the trap of thinking Putin is the reincarnation of Lenin. Not so. Putin is 100% neoliberal, an ultra-nationalist thug who works to enrich Russia’s 1% — its plutocracy, which loots Russia through hundreds of billions of dollars of capital flight. (Note that the fine folks at OCCRP have an excellent series documenting a tiny slice of this massive looting spree here: link to

    Lastly, some useful links from folks on the ground:

    Myroslava Petsa: link to
    Kharkhov Human Rights Group: link to
    Ukraine’s President: link to
    Top 100 Putinist Lies: link to
    Ukraine Today: link to

  4. I’m in full agreement with Mr. Hack here. This piece does NOT belong on Juan’s website. ‘Drivel’ is right down the pipe. Obama, as House Negro-in-Chief, tosses out lies on a daily basis, about what’s actually going on in the failed state of Ukraine — where one of this so-called nation’s richest businessman has now been ‘elected’ as president, and the rest of its junta-style government leaders have been selected by US and EU interests.

    Look no further than the shoot-down of the Malaysian airliner on July 17th, with the loss of 298 lives. Are ‘folks’ noticing that Obummer shut his mouth — along with the rest of the liars in America’s lame-stream-media machine, in regard to their bullshit about the plane’s loss being tied directly to Russia, and Putin — after August 5th — and the emergence of clear evidence that Ukrainian SU-25 Soviet-era fighters machine-gunned the cockpit of the Malaysian flight, most likely thinking they were taking down the Russian president’s similar-looking plane, which was nearby?

    Again — this ‘drivel’ by Daisy Sindelar, does not belong on Juan’s site. The whole mess in Ukraine had been ginned up by America and its puppets, on behalf of Western oil and gas interests, who want to frack the living shit out this France-sized piece of real estate, while turning the derived profits over to a handful of neo-fascist business interests, while cutting Russia out their energy sales to EU nations… This piece is far beneath the level of journalism enshrined by Juan Cole’s site, and all the good its done, on behalf of the Earth’s powerless masses — for many years now.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with all of the above.

    I usually agree with most of what is written here but this report sounds so much like the MSM I thought I was reading the NYT, BBC, CNN……

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