War on Ukraine, not conflict in Ukraine: why the language we use matters

Russia is the aggressor; Ukraine victim. Our choice of words should reflect this, writes Corrine Seals, a Ukrainian-American linguistics professor based in New Zealand.

Words are powerful. This is why speeches are given to encourage troops before battle and teams before matches. The words have also helped the current President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, rally support for Ukraine from around the world and turn world leaders’ expressions of “concern” into action.

The choice of words, and even the choice of language, matters in all contexts because of the meaning the words have.

When we call the current events in Ukraine a “crisis”, a “conflict” or a “war”, each word carries with it a particular meaning. When Russia illegally occupied Crimea in 2014, Russia officially violated Article 2 of the 1949 Geneva Convention and committed an act of war. Similarly, when Russia entered Ukraine with troops and artillery without provocation on February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine and started war against the whole country.

Yet a number of countries around the world such as China, India and (until recently) Turkey have avoided the terms ‘invasion’ and ‘war’. Why?

To call something a “war” linguistically and philosophically implies that there is a political aggressor from without. This is very different from calling the same event a “crisis”, which implies that the problem originates in the country experiencing the impact. Moreover, if you call this same event a “conflict”, you imply that there is equal responsibility between the two parties involved.

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine is labeled a “conflict,” it removes direct responsibility from Russia as the aggressor and instead assigns equal responsibility to Ukraine and Russia. Worse still, labeling Russia’s current war on Ukraine as a “crisis” implies that Ukraine is primarily responsible for solving these problems. Emphasizing the terms “invasion” and “war” assigns responsibility to Russia as an aggressor on Ukrainian soil.

Ukrainians arrive by train in Przemysl, Poland, near the western border of Ukraine, on February 28, 2022 (Photo: Omar Marques/Getty Images)

The importance of the meaning behind the terminology is why Ukrainians around the world have been pushing for current events to be referred to as ‘war’ and ‘invasion’, not ‘conflict’ or ‘crisis’ . This insistence received media attention when some countries avoided the correct terminology or rejected it outright. For example, at present, Russia’s allies, China and India, have continued to avoid any language of accountability to Russia. Instead, Chinese Foreign Minister’s aide Hua Chunying made headlines for refusing to use language condemning Russia or answering questions on the issue, instead turning away from discussions. on the United States. Other Chinese officials have repeatedly used the neutral terms “Russia’s operation” and “current situation”. Similarly, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for “an immediate cessation of violence” which, like the term “conflict”, removes direct responsibility from Russia.

Interestingly, Turkey has recently changed its mind when it comes to terminology. Until a few days ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Ergodan was ready to condemn Russia’s actions against Ukraine, but not to use the word “war”. Instead, Erdogan called Russia’s actions “a blow to regional peace and stability” and a “military operation”. However, on Sunday Ergodan changed his terminology, calling the Russian invasion a “war” instead. The power of words can be seen directly here, as this particular change in terminology now allows Turkey to enact the articles of the Montreux Convention of 1936, limiting Russia’s access to the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits, which the Russia uses to invade Ukraine.

For the Ukrainians, the question of terminology goes beyond the invasion qualified as “war” or “conflict”. The current language spotlight has allowed Ukrainians to point out other similar missteps that people around the world tend to make every day regarding Ukraine, which is a sovereign nation with an independent history from Russia dating back to thousands of years.

First, when referring to the country of Ukraine, there is no “the”. It is not “Ukraine”; it is “Ukraine”. To speak of “Ukraine” is like saying “New Zealand”. The misplaced article at the beginning (“the”) is a holdover from Soviet times and is how Ukraine is referred to in Russian grammar, not Ukrainian. Ukrainian and Russian are not the same language. They come from the same language family (similar to English and German, both Germanic), but Ukrainian is its own language with a history dating back to the 17th century (the same as modern English) and has over 45 million speakers.

Also, the capital of Ukraine is Kiev (often pronounced in English as KEEV), not Kiev (pronounced as KEY-ev). “Kiev” corresponds to the spelling of the name of the capital after the Ukrainian transliteration, while “Kiev” corresponds to the spelling following the Russian transliteration. While everyone should refer to Ukrainian standards anyway when discussing Ukrainian language issues, now is a particularly good time to learn.

About Norma Wade

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