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The civil war hoax: words that fooled the world

Despite loads of Russian military hardware being identified in Donbas, the term “civil war” is still often used to describe the situation in Ukraine. Photo:
The civil war hoax: words that fooled the world
Edited by: Isabella Popa

The linguistic status quo regarding the situation in Ukraine has finally been changed on the international level. Two Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) resolutions on Ukraine which have been passed on October 12 identify terms regarding Crimea and Donbas that leave no gap for manipulations; the phrase “conflict in Ukraine” has been replaced by “Russian aggression.”

Language is an important instrument of war for the Putin regime in Russia. It helps them create false images in the minds of masses and implement their imperialistic ambitions. Due to the Russian propaganda abroad, including two international channels founded by the Kremlin – RT (the re-branded Russia Today) and Sputnik, the international media has absorbed this manipulative language and started to use it in their own materials. So, Russian propaganda is broadcast not just in Russia, but all over the world.

Read also: How Russia’s worst propaganda myths about Ukraine seep into media language

The members of the Ukrainian delegation in PACE recognize that it was not easy to achieve such strict resolutions on Ukraine. According to the Ukrainian MPs, the Ukrainian delegation felt the presence of the Russian lobby. Ukrainian MP from Narodniy Front party Leonid Yemets explained that a large part of the PACE management wants the Russian delegation to be returned to the Assembly, after being removed in 2015 due to the Russian annexation of Crimea and armed conflict in Donbas.

“There was constant pressure from the Russians. They have powerful groups of influence here – deputies of PACE, the secretariat employees which are responsible for particular bureaucratic procedures, and the powerful lobby among the management of PACE,” the MP said.

“The French delegation really helped us. They dramatically changed their position [on Ukraine] after [Russia’s] bombing of Aleppo and the statements of both the president and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of France. And in general, the situation has changed dramatically. Our prediction that Putin does not need Georgia, Moldova, or Ukraine, but wants to dominate in the world is proving true. Syria is a prime example of this,” said Serhiy Sobolev, another member of the Ukrainian delegation and Fatherland party MP.

Russia reacted to the events in PACE predictably, blaming the organization for being biased:

“A frivolous carnival of russophobia went on in the autumn session of PACE. The assembly still does not understand that it is defective without Russia,” said the head of the of the Russian Parliamentary Committee on International Affairs, Aleksey Pushkov.

Will the term “russophobia” become a new form of Russian propaganda manipulation? Let’s look at how the language surrounding the situation in Ukraine has evolved since 2014.

The coup and revolution

The birth of civil society was the main achievement of the Euromaidan revolution. Not a good example for the Russian people, from the totalitarian regime’s point of view. Photo:

Russian word games in the media started with Euromaidan. Inside the country and around the world, Russia spread the myth that it was a “coup” calling the new Ukrainian government a “junta” and people involved in Euromaidan fascists and radicals.

Images of burning tires were shown in an attempt to reinforce the belief that the activists were radicals, however these images were taken out of context just as much as their words.

Why is the difference between the words “coup” and “revolution” so important? “Coup” is used for defining the illegal or forced change of power, while “revolution” implies a fundamental change in society. After the Euromaidan Revolution, Ukraine experienced the birth of civil society. This was both the main achievement of the revolution, and the greatest tool Ukraine received for further development.

Russia couldn’t refer to Euromaidan as a revolution because a totalitarian regime is afraid of a strong society, and the image of a dignified revolution would set a bad example for the people they want to control.

Just an annexation and an illegal annexation

At the begining of the occupation of Crimea, the Russian professional armed forces were called the “Crimean militia.” Photo: chtooznachaet

Anyone who visited Crimea before 2014 knows that Russia’s desire to seize the peninsula is nothing new. This was visible at least from the jokes of Russian tourists who described the peninsula as “theirs.” Meanwhile, the Russian authorities were preparing the ground. While they created the myth of Crimea wanting to go “back home to Russia,” in fact it was Russia who could not wait to fulfill its imperialistic ambitions. Again, these ambitions and aggression were covered by the manipulation of words.

After the illegal referendum to “come back home” was organized in March 2014, much remained hidden behind the false image of joy created in the Russian media. They did not report of abductions and deaths of the annexation’s opponents and that many of them had to leave the peninsula, or that there were repressions against those who voiced their position openly, and that Russian troops which forced Ukrainian military units to leave the peninsula by threats to them and their families were portrayed as so-called “Crimean people’s militia.” Those who tried to resist got killed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted that it were Russian forces blocking the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the peninsula only half a year later. However this did not matter anymore; the image of a peaceful annexation already was fixed in the minds of the Russian public. Additionally, the euphemism for Russian occupiers, “polite green people,” did well to conceal the nature of an armed invasion.

The civil war and the war

To counter Euromaidan, Russia organized protests in the eastern oblasts of Ukraine. There is evidence that these protests were artificially organized by Russia. Recently, Ukraine’s General Prosecutors Office (GPO) released a video they say proves that top officials of the Russian Federation were involved in the illegal annexation of Crimea and encouraging separatist unrest in southeastern Ukraine in the aftermath of the Euromaidan Revolution.

At that time, however, Russia was making it seem there was no difference between people who were standing at Euromaidan and those who came to protest in Eastern Ukraine. However, there was a significant difference in numbers (maximum 10 thousands of pro-Russian protesters compared to a half a million at Euromaidan). The other difference is the direct foreign involvement in the protests in the East.

Even though, after two years of war, different kinds of Russian tanks, artillery, and aircraft were confirmed on Ukrainian territory, the word “civil war” is still often used in to describe the situation in Ukraine. Even respected media such as BBC uses this terminology.

Recently the phrase “civil war” was used in the BBC-2 documentary entitled “The Conspiracy Files: Who Shot Down MH17,” and the accompanying article by Mike Rudin on the BBC website. After the incident, Ukraine’s Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs sent an official letter to the British media giant, appealing to the broadcaster to stop using the term “civil war” to refer to the situation in Ukraine.

Read also: Seven reasons the conflict in Ukraine is actually a Russian invasion

Rebels, separatists, and pro-Russian forces

In August 2014, Russian soldiers were captured in Ukraine while the world talked about the “civil war” in Ukraine. Photo: Reuters

To rebuke the civil war myth, the parties involved in this war should be also defined. From the very beginning, Russia had denied its influence, insisting the rebel groups were formed by locals. The term “rebels” took strong roots in both Russian and international media. Another word for so-called rebels was “separatists.” However, how can people who come from Russia be called Ukrainian separatists?

After some time, the Russian presence in Ukraine’s East became so obvious that the international language had to be changed.

In April 2015, US officials briefed on intelligence from the region said Russia has significantly deepened its command and control of separatist forces in recent months. That led the United States to subtlely introduce a new term: “combined Russian-separatist forces.”

So what is the role of locals in this war?

According to Ukrainian military analyst Dmytro Tymchuk, Russian military has troubles with fulfilling the battalions of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic”:

“The locals in the Donbas are, in fact, cannon fodder. Too often, the commanders of the “battalions,” with rare exceptions, are Russian officers,” says Tymchuk. The expert is confident that the battalions which consist mostly of locals [such as ‘Somalia’ and ‘Kalmus’ battalions] are not strong or well organized, but are still significant for propaganda purposes, because the foreign media can be focused solely on local battalions like these, ignoring all involvement by the Russian military.

Ukrainian crisis, conflict in Ukraine, and Russian aggression

Burned Russian military hardware was found in Ilovaisk. Photo:

By using the phrase “Ukrainian crisis” when referring to the situation in Ukraine’s East, Western media has mislead their audience. The word “crisis” is perceived as a complex of internal problems. There can be a political crisis or an economic crisis, and both can be relevant to the situation in Ukraine, however not in the East. Because this terminology omits the involvement of the most important player – Russia.

The word “conflict” recognizes the involved parties, but this term is also misleading. Russian media and authorities like to use the term “the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine” as this wording is convenient for them; the word “conflict” is perceived as something internal. Whether a conflict is armed or not, it is not perceived as a war between two countries. By using this term, the media presents Russia as a third party, an international observer of what is going on in Ukraine, and not as the instigator and the main adversary in the war. Although Russia’s involvement is sometimes acknowledged, the scale of its role is downplayed. [Very few outlets call this for what it is: “Russian military aggression” and “Russo-Ukrainian war.”]

When international organizations adopt this neutral language, they equate Ukraine’s responsibility to that of Russia, even though Russia is the only one fighting on the territory of another country.

Replacing the word “conflict” with “Russian aggression” rightfully puts the responsibility for the military violence and human rights violations in Ukraine on Russia.

Read also: Donbas “separatists” got 33 types of military systems from Russia – report

How the war is called in Ukraine

Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers were mobilized to the war which is called an Anti-Terrorist-Operation. Photo:

The Ukrainian soldiers in Donbas and military volunteers who help the army define the situation in the East is as war, but Ukrainian officials still use the term “Anti-Terrorist Operation” after two and a half years of the conflict.

“As there is no act of declaring a war, except an open aggression against Ukraine – the hybrid nature of this threat – we use the form ‘anti-terrorist operation,’” said Ihor Kosyak, a representative of the Headquarters of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

However, this wording has a significant problem: Ukraine does not officially recognize the Luhansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics” as terrorist organizations. The current Ukrainian law On Combating Terrorism has no provision on how an organization can be recognized as terrorist; the responsibility to recognize an organization as terrorist is put on a court.

The bill on Amendments to some laws of Ukraine on the Improving of the Mechanisms of the Fight Against Terrorism already exists, but so far there has been no progress in passing it.

The work of Ukrainian Delegation in PACE has brought about many positive changes in regards to how the situation in Ukraine is referred to. The changed terminology and other provisions of the passed resolutions open the door for preventing and giving an appropriate response to the acts of Russian aggression in Ukraine. However, certain changes still have to be made within Ukraine, in particular, changing the legal language.


Edited by: Isabella Popa
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