In Harold Lasswell’s (1936) famous phrase, politics is about who gets what, when, where, and how. It implies a focus on the redistributive role of politics, shifting the distribution of money, jobs, favours, projects, and other material goods. This led Murray Edelman (1967) and others to identify the importance of a less material and more symbolic role of politics, which has generally been called ‘symbolic politics’.
In discussing and working with colleagues on a case study of Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine, Edelman’s and related work on symbolic politics quickly arose – it was inescapable. It is literally impossible to discuss these events without offending one or another actor in this case study of contemporary warfare and associated information, communication, and technical campaigns. It is a delicate issue. The Economist characterised this debate as a ‘social media war’. But it is a debate that should not be skirted around as it is embeds many of the major controversies surrounding the events launched on 24 February. As two political scientists at Northeastern University noted: “Words matter” (Botkin-Kowacki 2022). What words should be used to describe the events surrounding the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022?
It is nearly impossible to name this event without appearing to be pro-Russia or pro-Ukraine, but it is possible to seek a reasoned position on this debate, even if not a neutral position. In the UN, G20, and other international bodies, neutrality has itself been seen as pro-Russian. The international alignments on the Russo-Ukraine War are a focus of a larger case study that is underway, so I won’t try to resolve it this short blog, other than to say it is a prominent stance of many nations with a strategic interest, such as in trade or defence, in not aligning against Russia.
With this brief background, let me spell out the most prominent positions, beginning with the Kremlin’s Russian definition and moving to a more historical and collectively defined conception. I present only three viewpoints, althought they each have variations. I am not arguing that they are equally legitimate, as they are not. But together they clarify the stark differences and how I have resolved this debate in my own work.
Russia’s Perspective on the Events
Aljazeera reports that Russian officials have told the media to use the term ‘Special Military Operation’ (SMO) to describe its assault on Ukraine from 24 February 2022. Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet censor, warned that any website referring to Russia’s SMO as an “invasion”, “attack”, or declaration of war”, would be blocked. Aljazeera goes on to report that school children must be taught the government’s official narrative about the history of Ukraine and the SMO. And if any doubt remains, lessons are provided by manuals distributed through the school system with the “approved version of events”.
A Ukraine Perspective on the Events
While not an official government position, a group of twenty Ukrainian media organisations and individual journalists and other media professionals have agreed in an open letter on how to cover Russia’s “unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine” (IMS 2023). They recommend that Russia’s role in the war should be recognized by referring to “Russia’s war in Ukraine” or the “Russian invasion of Ukraine”. They view the use of alternative terms like the “crisis”, “conflict”, or “military operation” in Ukraine as understating the severity of the invasion. Also, by referring to it as the Ukrainian or Ukraine “crisis”, they argue that these expressions marginalize Russia’s role. It also should not be portrayed as a ‘proxy war’ between Russia and the West, which would deny Ukraine’s agency and support Russia’s justification for the war, as the Kremlin claims Russia to be the victim of aggression from the US, NATO and the West.
This recognition of the invasion as an aspect of a ‘war’ was reflected by the United Nations votes on ending the war, such as in the President of the UN General Assembly that the Assembly and the international community “have been consistent and vocal in our calls to end this war, and to adhere to the UN Charter and international law”. It has also been defined as a war by others, including the EU and its member states in condemning Russia’s ‘brutal war of aggression’.
A Collaborative Western Perspective on the Events
Another perspective can be gained from a nomenclature based on events overtime constructed by Wikipedia’s international community of experts and editors, which arguably represent a broad but more Western perspective on the war. For example, they note that there have been previous invasions of Ukraine, such the third Soviet invasion of Ukraine in 1919-1920. The editors refer to this most recent set of events as the ‘Russo-Ukrainian War (2014-present)’, which they segment into three overlapping but separate parts:
- Annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, 2014
- War in Donbas, 2014-2022, which resulted in The Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic being established as breakaway states in eastern Ukraine that were directly supported by Russia
- Russian invasion of Ukraine, 2022-present
Each of these separate events have been the subject of much controversy between Russia and Ukraine on their legitimacy. For example, Russia argued that it had an historical claim on Crimea as a former colony and later part of the Soviet Union, but it was transferred administratively to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. However, as Brookings Fellow, Steven Pifer (2020), explained, the annexation was illegal, violating the UN Charter, the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances for Ukraine, and the 1997 Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership between Ukraine and Russia. In each case, Russia’s claims are arguably invalid – but Russia’s political truth.
Therefore, for the purposes of the case study I am involved with, this collaborative typology of events seems to be a fair, broader, and more accurate summary. This war is not a SMO, a proxy war, or simply a conflict. It is part of the Russo-Ukrainian War that includes the Annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation (2014), the War in Donbas (2014-2022), and the Russian invasion of Ukraine (2022-present). That said, the labels adopted here do not exclude other labels and characterisations across the stages of events in this war. In fact, these symbolic appeals run throughout the case study. Moreover, it does not settle the symbolic politics of the ‘Russo-Ukraine War’ as they will continue. However, it is in line with the recommendations of a strong set of Ukraine journalists but also more inclusive as it spans the full set of key events from 2014 to the present.
I welcome your comments, alternative suggestions, and criticisms of my argument.
Botkin-Kowacki, E. (2022), ‘What do we call what’s happening in Ukraine? Words Matter’, Northeastern Global News, February 24: https://news.northeastern.edu/2022/02/24/russia-ukraine-conflict-terminology/
Edelman, M. (1967), The Symbolic Uses of Politics. University of Illinois Press.
IMS (2023), ‘Open Letter to media professionals who cover Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’, a blog from imi.org.ua, 24 March: https://imi.org.ua/en/news/open-letter-to-media-professionals-who-cover-russia-s-invasion-of-ukraine-i44574
Lasswell, H. D. (1936), Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. New York, London: Whittlesey House, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.
Mykhnenko, V. (2023), ‘Expert Comment: This is no proxy war – Russia really invaded Ukraine’, News & Events, University of Oxford, see: https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2023-02-21-expert-comment-no-proxy-war-russia-really-invaded-ukraine
Pifer, S. (2020), “Crimea: Six years after illegal annexation’, Brookings Commentary, March 17, available online at: https://www.brookings.edu/articles/crimea-six-years-after-illegal-annexation/
 This is the title of his early book, Lasswell, H. D. (1936), Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. New York, London: Whittlesey House, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.
 An overview of the case study approach is outlined online at: https://billdutton.me/about-2/the-ukraine-case-studies/
 This article was based on interviews with two Northeastern professors, Pablo Calerón Martínez and Mai’a Cross.
 This point is reinforced by Vlad Mykhnenko (2023).
 Wikipedia’s useful list of invasions and occupations of Ukraine are online at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_invasions_and_occupations_of_Ukraine