Translated from Ukrainian by Marina Khonina
Until 2014, Ukrainians did not need to add a clarification when referring to “the war.” When someone said “before the war” or “after the war,” everyone understood that to mean World War II. Although we all interpreted history somewhat differently (for some, the Soviet troops in the 1940s were liberators; for others, they were the new occupying forces), for each of us, the war was a terrible, long-gone event that could not happen again. After all, there were no more monster states capable of unleashing a new bloody war in Europe.
But as it turned out, there were such states. In 2014, Russia annexed a part of Ukraine, the Crimean peninsula, and staged a “people's rebellion” in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The “rebels” were led by Russian special forces and armed with Russian weapons. Ukraine had to defend itself and managed to liberate a portion of its land — only to be stopped by the Russian army, which invaded the Donetsk region. For the first time since 1944, our country saw a frontline, trenches, artillery shelling, tank warfare, refugees, heroes, and casualties.
However, at the time, the Ukrainian authorities decided not to officially call it a war, although they spoke of “Russian aggression.” Instead, they used the euphemism “anti-terrorist operation” (“антитерористична операція”) and, since 2018, “joint forces operation” (“операція об'єднаних сил”). This, they said, allowed them not to introduce martial law, avoid direct confrontation with Russia, and offered a chance for a peaceful conflict resolution. There was no peace, however: the shelling continued, people died, and residents of the occupied territories had no chance to lead a normal life. Formally, however, there was no war either. The military personnel, volunteers, and internally displaced persons were all reminders of it happening throughout these eight years, but politicians, foreign diplomats, and international organizations avoided the word.
Since February 24, 2022, when the Russian army started a new offensive against Ukraine, we have been looking for new euphemisms. Ukrainians call this war “full-scale” or “big” to distinguish it from the previous phase of Russian aggression. Arguably, for a person who lost their home or loved ones in Donetsk or Luhansk, the war before 2022 was big enough. It is important for us to remember and to remind others that Russia has been attacking us since 2014.
Now it's Russia that is avoiding the word “war” and referring to what it's doing in Ukraine as a “special military operation” (“специальная военная операция”) This label is part of Russia's attempt to deprive Ukraine of its subjectivity in the eyes of the world and assert Russia's claim to do whatever it wants on our territory. The “neutral” and “diplomatic” phrases used by international organizations and foreign media also help achieve this goal. These include phrases like “the Ukrainian crisis” or “the conflict in Ukraine.” If we ignore the pseudo-historical reasons invented by Russia that allegedly justify its invasion of a neighboring country, we will have to acknowledge that there was no crisis in Ukraine without Russia's involvement. Moreover, the “conflict” can be resolved in an instant; Russia only needs to withdraw its troops from Ukrainian territories and stop firing missiles at us.
A matter of identity
I saw a Russian Kalibr missile in April very close to the center of Lviv. This is a city in western Ukraine, thousands of kilometers from the war zone. The missile flew over my house and within seconds hit a civilian car repair shop, killing four workers. The wave from the blast shattered the windows of a nearby hotel that housed displaced people. Shrapnel caused a three-year-old boy from Kharkiv to lose a finger. His mother said that she was trying to take him out of the room to safety and did not understand why he was screaming: “My finger! Finger!”
The world-famous Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote that the happiness of the whole world is not worth a tear on the cheek of an innocent child. Apparently, Russians, who were raised on Dostoevsky, do not consider Ukrainian children to be innocent, because they have already killed 500 and are killing and maiming more children every day using rockets, shelling, and mines. They also stole hundreds of Ukrainian children from the occupied territories and took them away, separating them from their families. Thousands more are being re-educated in schools using Russian textbooks and are made to believe that they are now Russians.
Here it would be appropriate to mention an author who is less popular outside of Russia, but is familiar to all Russian children, Ivan Krylov, who rewrote Aesop's and La Fontaine's fables. In one of his stories, a wolf is about to eat a lamb. The lamb asks: “What have I done?” The wolf answers: “You are to blame for my hunger.”
Today, five Ukrainian regions are experiencing a “hot” war, and rocket explosions are regularly heard in all corners of our big country. We are grateful to the civilized world for the support that keeps our society from collapsing and helps the Ukrainian army hold back the enemy. But we also want the world to understand us.
We want them to understand that we are not Russians, that we have never been Russians (regardless of what Putin might say, and we will never be Russians). I write this because recently the director of an organization that distributes Western humanitarian aid showed me something she found among the gifts to Ukrainian children. It was a “matryoshka” (also known as “babushka” in the form of a weighted doll, or “vanka-vstanka.” It's just a toy, but it's also a symbol of the people who attacked us and want to destroy us.
We want the world to understand that we do not need to “reconcile with” or sit at the negotiating table with any Russians. Don't encourage us to forgive anyone or concede anything. We want to preserve our independent state and to make our country as peaceful, prosperous and happy in the future as the neighboring countries of Europe — and we have every right to do so. The Russians have other plans for us: bluntly speaking, they want us to stop existing. A compromise is impossible here.
Understand that if we don't defend ourselves and preserve a world order in which aggressive wars are unacceptable, the next victims are going to be other countries, in Europe and beyond, and it’s going to be much harder to defend them.
This understanding can be demonstrated by using the right words and interpretations for who we are, what we do, and what Russia is doing to us. This is crucial both for the world and for us. The “special operation” is in fact an aggressive war on foreign territory, unjustified and unprovoked (remember the lamb!). According to various polls, two-thirds to three-quarters of Russians support “Putin's war,” making it Russia's war and making all of its citizens responsible for it. The existence of a “Russian-speaking population” in the areas that Russia attacked and largely destroyed does not justify aggression. There are no “spheres of influence” that give one country the right to attack another. The Ukrainian territories that Russia occupied cannot be called Russian, and the occupation government appointed to these territories cannot be called a “pro-Russian administration.” The “people's republics” are neither of the people nor are they republics; this is an occupying regime backed by Russian weapons. The “referendum” staged by the Russian occupation authorities in the occupied territories, with its predetermined outcome, has nothing to do with the true expression of a people's will. I could go on.
Russian lies — in propaganda-permeated media outlets, diplomatic statements, and “expert” comments by Putin's Western friends — are an attempt to distort reality, upend values, and lead the world to believe that Ukraine can be given up. Using correct words reminds the world that we, Ukrainians, have nothing to give up: if we do, we will simply cease to exist. For now, it's just us.