How to (and not to) Talk About the Invasion of Ukraine
Updated: Apr 6
The Dos and Don’ts of Navigating the Discursive Field
How have you heard the current invasion of Ukraine discussed, on the news, by your colleagues, or on social media? If your news feeds and news channels are anything like mine, the answer is: mostly in the same familiar ways. Political commentary, formal and informal, is currently flooded with descriptions of this invasion as "the Ukraine Crisis," and "the situation in Ukraine," and Cold War-era "East vs West" distinctions are abundant. You may think that the focus on how we discuss the invasion of Ukraine is superfluous or bombastic at a time when people are dying and fleeing their homes. But consider that language has become Putin's primary tool for maintaining control over Russia and how the invasion is described in the country. Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, Putin banned Russian media outlets from using words such as "assault" and "invasion." 1 Words are crucial tools in authoritarians' toolboxes for generating false narratives, spreading misinformation, and justifying nefarious policies. If we're talking about Putin's egregious invasion of Ukraine, and we genuinely care about the people affected, why not be specific about what we mean with our descriptions?
Scholars in the social sciences began turning their analytical attention to the role that language plays in world politics in the 1980s and 1990s in what has been referred to as the linguistic turn.2 Indeed many have been critical of the linguistic-turn in the social sciences. Common responses to linguistic-focused analyses of foreign policy engagements include: why does language matter at a time when people are dying? Who cares about how we describe a conflict when the conflict is currently occuring? Can't we deal with what is and is not an appropriate description once the devastation has ended?
This common line of criticism misses a very important point regarding the invasion of Ukraine: it isn't new and has been occurring for 8 years. If discussions about how best to represent the agency of Ukrainians in our language was to be kept until after the invasion of Crimea ended, we'd still be waiting. Moreover, scholars have long acknowledged that the ways in which we talk about an event works, consciously and subconsciously, to construct the event in reality. Do you think, for example, that if the 9/11 terrorist attacks had been widely constructed as an attack committed by a group of men that needed to be prosecuted rather than what became the dominant narrative: a global "War on Terror" involving the fight between the "civilized world" against the "uncivilized world,"3 actions in Afghanistan and Iraq would have occurred in the same way? If even Putin is afraid of words, don't they matter in world politics?
On that note, let's take seriously how we talk about Putin's invasion of Ukraine and get started by looking at some of the common descriptions being deployed.
1. “The Ukraine” and "Kiev"
Why is it problematic? - Ukraine is the country's official name; there is no long-form version of the name, such as The Netherlands. "The Ukraine" is how the territory of Ukraine was formerly described in the Russian language during the period of Soviet control. The Russian preposition for "the" means "on," so what is really being said is "on Ukraine." This becomes "the" when translated into English but maintains its original meaning, which denotes a territory instead of an independent state. For example, one is on Mt. Everest, but one is in Canada. Therefore, many Ukrainians become deeply hurt when they hear English speakers repeat this characterization of their country, which has been an independent state since 1991. 4 Furthermore, repeating terminology that constructs Ukraine as a territory fuels Putin's false claims of Ukraine as a territory that belongs to Russia.
"Kiev" (kee-yev) is also the Russian transliteration and pronunciation of the Ukrainian capital. In Ukrainian it is transliterated and pronounced "Kyiv" (kee-yiv).5 As I was once told by a Ukrainian colleague, "Kiev should only be used when referring to the dish Chicken Kiev."
What can we replace it with? - The official name of the country - just Ukraine. Ukrainians prefer the Ukrainian pronunciation of their capital city of Kyiv.
2. "The crisis in Ukraine” or “the Ukraine crisis”
Why is it problematic? - While there is quite literally a crisis occurring in Ukraine on many levels, using phrases such as “the crisis in Ukraine” or “the Ukraine crisis” makes invisible the aggressors in the conflict, while simultaneously removing the agency of Ukrainians, their role in the resistance. Furthermore, referring to it as a “crisis” obscures the fact that it is an invasion and involves the human suffering that comes along with that.
What can we replace it with? - Replacing this phrase with “Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine” (see point #3) highlights the aggressor who is responsible for the war. At the same time, referring to the conflict as the invasion of Ukraine has the added benefit of refuting Putin’s claims of “liberating” Ukraine.
5. “The West”
Why is it problematic? - The discourse of the “the West” has long been problematic, as has been pointed out by many scholars of central and eastern Europe.6 Using this terminology invokes images of “the West” as “civilized,” “developed,” “democratic,” “free,” and “wealthy.” This is typically contrasted with “the East,” as “uncivilized,” underdeveloped,” “undemocratic,” “poor,” and lacking in “freedom” due to the region’s communist past. However, these regions are far more complex. Who is Putin opposed to in “the West” today? The United States, Mexico, Poland? What constitutes “the West?” Is Poland, a Slavic country in eastern Europe that was previously a member of the Warsaw Pact, included when we speak of the “the West” today? You can see the conceptual slippage that takes place here. While there were some similarities under the former communist regimes of eastern Europe, experiences of communism differed significantly across the region. In the state-socialist systems of central Europe, people owned a small amount of private property and engaged in limited market transactions. This differed from their Soviet, Bulgarian 7 and Romanian counterparts. Not to mention the specificities of the former Yugoslavia, where people enjoyed greater freedom of movement than their Soviet counterparts.8 There were also various transitions from communism across the region. In the 1990s, the former states of Yugoslavia slid into ethnic warfare. Former Soviet Russia fell under the competitive authoritarian regime of Putin, and oligarchs used the transition to a free market to amass their own personal wealth. Many countries in central Asia developed into hybrid regimes.9 And, Belarus’ president, Lukashenko, became known as “Europe’s last dictator.” 10 Meanwhile, the central-eastern European states of Czechia, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary consolidated their democracies relatively quickly, transitioned to free-market economies, and became members of the European Union (EU) in 2004. Bulgaria and Romania followed in 2007. Therefore, we cannot speak of "the East" as a homogenous entity, just as we can't speak of "the West" as homogenous.
Moreover, by using these concepts, Ukraine is discursively placed outside of “the West,” when in fact the country maintains many of the attributes typically associated with “the West,” such as a democratic regime, an element that is receding in so-called "Western countries" (see my previous post). Finally, I would be remiss not to make the point regularly made by my Czech colleagues: even though Czechia is typically lumped into this category of “the East,” Prague is geographically located further west than Vienna, Austria...a country few who use the term "the West" would ever exclude from it.
What can we replace it with? - Being specific about what we are talking about is always a good idea. We can replace the term by saying simply what we mean - "the United States," "the United States and its NATO allies," "North American and European countries," "Russia." And, while we're at it, can we also do away with "developed"/"undeveloped" and "first world"/"third world?" The world is far more complex than these terms imply.
6. “The Cold War”
Why is it problematic? - The Cold War refers to a period of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies that lasted from shortly after the end of World War II until the collapse of the communist regimes of Europe beginning in 1989. While Russia may be the successor state to the Soviet Union, its political and economic systems differ significantly. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia does not possess a large economy. Relative to other countries in Europe, Russia’s economy would be considered moderately-sized. Using the discourse of the Cold War discursively constructs Russia as a powerful player in world politics, a legacy that it did not realistically inherit from its predecessor, the Soviet Union.
When policymakers know only the lens of Cold War geopolitics, and military structures are built around this lens, then decisions will only be made through this lens.11 When we approach the current invasion of Ukraine in this way we are unable to see it in any other way, and, as a result, we lose sight of the specificities of the current situation. By extension, applying other concepts associated with the Cold War to the current invasion of Ukraine, such as "a proxy war," obscures the fact that this is an invasion of Ukraine, and it is currently Ukrainians who are paying the price. In the words of the historian Timothy Snyder, "The world isn't just about Washington and Moscow. It's also about other sovereign states and other peoples who can express their desires and have their own foreign policies."12 Let "the Cold War" denote those decades of tensions prior to 1989. What happens in 2022 is different and relying on "the Cold War" rhetoric not only overlooks the specifics of this modern invasion, but it is also just plain lazy.
What can we replace it with? - Again, we should opt for more specificity here, saying precisely what we mean, such as “Putin’s invasion of Ukraine” or “tensions between NATO allies and the government of Russia.”
7. “Women and children”
Why is it problematic? - First, I will preface this by saying that I fully acknowledge that those assigned to the category of female at birth and those assigned to the category of male at birth have very different experiences throughout their lifecycles. I acknowledge that those assigned female experience certain phenomena disproportionately to their male counterparts (i.e., domestic violence, sexual abuse and exploitation, comparatively lower wages, lack of access to reproductive healthcare and healthcare in general, lack of access to education, etc.).13 However, I attribute this disparity to the patriarchal social structures in which we live. I understand patriarchal structures to vary across time and space and to affect both men and women, albeit in very different ways.14
With that said, we have heard the phrase "women and children" repeated continuously since the invasion began and this is not new in human rights reporting.15 This terminology is not problematic on its face - most Ukrainian refugees are indeed women and children since Ukrainian men between the ages of 18-60 are not allowed to leave the country. However, a vast amount of feminist scholarship has pointed to how political leaders often use this phrase to justify foreign policy decisions such as the U.S.'s invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the country's involvement in Syria. Political leaders often deploy this phrase without considering how those military actions may be detrimental to actual women and children or at least result in no long-term gains for women and children in the affected area(s).16 The repetition of this phrase has been used to justify a number of foreign policy decisions. Feminist international relations scholar Cynthia Enloe even coined the term "womenandchildren" to demonstrate how the repetition of this phrase collapses the various experiences of actual women and children affected by war and foreign policy decisions.17 In addition to collapsing individuals' various experiences into one phrase, it also constructs women as only mothers (women without children are made invisible by this terminology). It also works discursively to construct women as children, thereby reinforcing patriarchal gender relations that are used to justify the state as the protector of women. This is often heard in nationalist rhetoric that casts men in foreign countries as perpetrators of violence and men at home as protectors of women and children, removing the agency of actual women and children. This call to action also hides the reality that the vast majority of abuse that occurs to actual women and children is perpetrated within the home,18 not by a foreign national.
Women do face specific forms of violence disproportionately during wartime (i.e., rape, displacement, etc.). Nevertheless, discursively constructing women primarily as victims reduces women's agency and their varied experiences in conflict situations either as refugees, resistors, and/or combatants. The corollary to this, and equally problematic, is casting women combatants as "strong women." This casts women resistors and/or combatants as out-of-the-ordinary19 when in fact, there are both men and women who have the capacity and ability to fight, and there are both men and women who do not have the capacity and ability to fight. Casting these women as unusual through the "strong woman" motif removes the agency of all women. Indeed, not all women are fleeing Ukraine. Ukrainian women have a long history of engaging in resistance.20 Many of whom gained media attention for their participation in the Euromaidan protests.21 Women have various experiences and each woman engages in resistance and militarism for her own reasons.22
What can we replace it with? - We would not want to replace this with a statement that is untrue - there are, in fact, women and children who are currently fleeing Ukraine. The problem with this statement is repetition. Instead, we should think deeply about the discursive power of this phrase and the various ways in which it can be used for political ends. "Ukrainians" works just fine. We could always opt for “human beings” as well.
You may wonder why all this is important, and you might be tempted to write it off as a version of “political correctness.” But, I challenge you to think about why it is that a particular term is repeatedly used; doing so can reveal hidden assumptions and power structures. Putin knows this quite well. You should too.
1 "Russia bans words ‘invasion’ and ‘assault’ in media, warns several outlets." https://www.timesofisrael.com/russia-bans-words-invasion-and-assault-in-media-warns-several-outlets/.
2 Kathleen Canning 1994 article “Feminist History after the Linguistic Turn: Historicizing Discourse and Experience” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society discusses the interactions between feminism and poststructuralist theory across disciplines and she discusses disagreements among feminists regarding the interdisciplinary of the linguistic turn.
3 Taylor R. McDonald's forthcoming book The Ambiguity of the Canadian Self: Discourses of Canadian Foreign Policy and War on Terror.
4 Katy Steinmetz. 2014. “Ukraine, Not the Ukraine: The Significance of Three Little Letters.” https://time.com/12597/the-ukraine-or-ukraine/.
5 "How to pronounce and spell ‘Kyiv’, and why it matters." https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/25/how-to-pronounce-and-spell-kyiv-kiev-ukraine-and-why-it-matters.
6 For an intellectual history of how Europe came to be conceived of as "Western Europe" and "Eastern Europe" see Larry Wolf's 1994 book Inventing Eastern Europe
The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. Stanford University Press.
7 I recommend Kristen Ghodsee’s 2009 book Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe for an ethnographic account of the effects of transition on the lives of Muslim women in Bulgaria.
8 If you are interested in reading more about life in Yugoslavia I recommend Slavenka Drakulić’s 2016 How We Survived Communism & Even Laughed.
9 Jonathan Eales. 2021. "The Rising Tide of Authoritarianism in Central Asia." https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/the-rising-tide-of-authoritarianism-in-central-asia/.
10 “Why Belarus is called Europe’s last dictatorship?” The Economist. https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2021/05/25/why-belarus-is-called-europes-last-dictatorship.
11 See Vincent Pouliot’s 2010 article "The materials of practice: Nuclear warheads, rhetorical commonplaces and committee meetings in Russian–Atlantic relations” in Cooperation and Conflict.
12 “Journalist Andrew Cockburn & Historian Timothy Snyder on Ukraine, Russia, NATO Expansion & Sanctions.” Democracy Now! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Y8ny69uU3g.
13 bell hooks 2000 chapter “Ending Violence ” In Feminism is For Everybody discusses how patriarchy is embedded in other forms of oppressive social structures.
14 Cynthia Enloe’s 1993 book The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War offers a discussion of shifting definitions of gender roles, sexuality, and militarism at the end of the Cold War in the twentieth century.
15 Iona Cable 2021. “Women And Children”: The Role Of Innocence In Human Rights Reporting.” https://www.humanrightspulse.com/mastercontentblog/women-and-children-the-role-of-innocence-in-human-rights-reporting.
16 Zillah Eisenstein 2012. “The lie of ‘women and children’” https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2013/10/2/the-lie-of-women-and-children.
17 Cynthia Enloe 1990. Bananas, Beaches and Bases Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. University of California Press.
18 Liz Kelly’s groundbreaking 1988 book Surviving Sexual Violence: Everyday Forms of Violence connects everyday forms of violence to extreme forms of violence. Refuting the argument the popular argument that violent acts against women are individual criminal acts. Instead, she argues that these acts are a consequence of and the cause of the larger system of patriarchy.
19 For an analysis of how women who commit violence during wartime are sensationalized see Laura Sjoberg's 2016 book Women as Wartime Rapists Beyond Sensation and Stereotyping. New York University Press.
20 For more on women’s activism in the region I recommend Alexandra Hrycak’s 2010 article “Orange Harvest? Women’s Activism and Civil Society in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia since 2004.” Canadian-American Slavic Studies.
21 Josh Cohen 2016. “Women of the Euromaidan: Where Were They Then and Where Are They Now.” https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/women-of-the-euromaidan-where-were-they-then-and-where-are-they-now/.
22 I recommend Olena Nikolayenko and Maria DeCasper’s 2018 article in which they interview women about their own reasoning for becoming involved in the Euromaidan protests “Why Women Protest: Insights from Ukraine's EuroMaidan” in Slavic Review. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/slavic-review/article/why-women-protest-insights-from-ukraines-euromaidan/A4943759BD4A1CD9F9B17CA0870599BB.
I also recommend the documentary "Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom" available on Netflix.