Friday, September 30, 2022

Crisis in Ukraine: To Russia, it’s a ‘special military operation’ not ‘war’

Russia insists that it is not at “war” in Ukraine, instead referring to its violent campaign as a “special military operation.” Under a harsh new law, Russians now face up to 15 years in prison if they spread “fake” reports and call the conflict what it is: a “war” and “invasion.”

“The effort to call this not a war is just the tip of the iceberg of what seems to be the Russian leadership’s efforts to deny this war’s existence to the Russian people,” Dr. Timothy Sayle told

Sayle is an assistant professor of history and the director of the University of Toronto’s international relations program who has written extensively about NATO and post-World War Two Europe.

“When we see massed armored formations being destroyed by anti-tank missiles, when we see fighter jets and attack helicopters in the sky, we’re so far past the line of whether this is a war or not,” he said from Toronto. “We refer to these events as wars, because we know wars when we see them, but there are domestic, political and sometimes legal reasons as to why the states waging them refuse to use that word.”

To start, Sayle believes Russian leadership expected a swift campaign—not stiff Ukrainian resistance.

“The war has just gone unexpectedly catastrophically for the Russians,” he said. “They weren’t expecting that they would have to keep a war secret, and they very much have a much larger war than I think they ever wanted.”

As the Ukrainian conflict intensifies, Sayle says Russian President Vladimir Putin also likely wants to avoid comparisons with the Second World War.

“There is Russian memory and legend about just how horrible war is for Russia and for all people,” Sayle said. “The word ‘war’ has so much baggage attached to it.”

Russia however is not the first country to launch large-scale military operations and claim it’s not a war. As an early example, Sayle points to what’s now referred to as the Korean War, which began in 1950.

“The United States and its allies were very careful, just five years after the end of the Second World War, not to refer to this as a war,” he explained. “It was actually often referred to as a ‘police action.’ Of course, it was very much a war, and no one wanted to be reminded that these powers were back at war.”

Sayle gives the “long and grueling” Vietnam War as another example. More than two million American men were drafted during the bloody conflict, yet no formal declaration of war was ever made.

“A declaration of war has to come from Congress, and it’s been presidents who’ve chosen to take the United States to war,” Sayle said of the decades following the Second World War.

Sayle notes countries fighting conventional wars are also supposed to be bound by the rules of conflict outlined in the Geneva Convention.

Russia said it dispatched “peacekeepers” when it occupied the separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. “Peacekeepers” was also the word Russia used for the forces it deployed to quash anti-government protests in Kazakhstan this January.

“I do recognize this as a pattern in international relations of states being very careful about how they talk about war and their role in conflict,” Sayle said. “Many states have learned to find other phrases to describe their actions.”

With files from the Associated Press


Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Desk
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