<strong>Blog: Language matters – a guide to talking about Ukraine</strong>
February 15, 2023

Blog: Language matters – a guide to talking about Ukraine

One year ago, russia launched an unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In response, people around the world are standing in solidarity with Ukraine. Solidarity can be shown in many different ways, including through the language you use! What you say and how you say it is really important.

Unfortunately over the last year, we have seen many news articles using incorrect terminology to refer to Ukraine, so here we tackle some of the most commonly asked questions about terminology. We will explain everything from the term “full-scale invasion” to the spelling of different Ukrainian places, all while debunking russian disinformation and historical myths.

Throughout this blog post, we will not capitalise on the country “russia” or its adjective “russian”.

This is one of many ways that people show support for Ukraine through written language. The atrocities committed by the russian regime and its supporters call for its non-recognition and isolation from the international community; hence, the symbolic choice to use an uncapitalised “r”. It also serves as a reminder that we will not allow russian aggression in Ukraine to be normalised by the international community.

1. What does the term  “full-scale invasion” mean?

The current situation in Ukraine is an all-out war. On 24 February 2022, russia launched a full-scale invasion of independent Ukraine and disseminated lots of disinformation in the form of propaganda to try to justify its aggression and gain support for its political objectives. Disinformation is the deliberate dissemination of false, manipulated, or misleading information. According to russian propaganda, their attack on Ukraine is “a special military operation” which aims to “liberate” Ukraine. The full-scale invasion refers to russia’s indiscriminate and unprovoked attack on all Ukrainian territories.

2. How are “full-scale invasion” and “war” any different, and does it even matter?

In many contexts, they are not different. A full-scale invasion is a type of war; however, when talking about Ukraine, it can be misleading to use the terms “war” and “full-scale invasion” interchangeably. While the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by the russian armed forces began on 24 February 2022, russia has been waging war against Ukraine for much longer. The war originally began in February 2014, when russian armed forces invaded, occupied, and then illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula by means of a fake referendum. Additionally, russia started the war in Donetsk and Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine by infiltrating the region with personnel and weapons and declaring these territories as “independent” from Ukraine. As a result, there has been the war in Eastern Ukraine for almost 9 years (at the time of writing). The term “full-scale invasion” refers specifically to this new phase of the war that russia instigated on 24 February 2022, when it extended its aggression from Crimea and Eastern Ukraine to the entire territory of Ukraine.

3. Why is it wrong to call russia’s war against Ukraine a “proxy war”?

A proxy war is a “war fought between groups or smaller countries that each represent the interests of other larger powers”. russian propaganda argues that Ukraine is just a tool that Western countries and institutions such as the USA, EU, and NATO are using to fight against russia. This is not true. First, russia, with the support of belarus, is actively and directly invading Ukraine with its own armed forces, it is not using any third-parties or other agents as substitutes on its behalf. Secondly, Ukrainians are defending their existence against russian attacks. Ukraine is not being used as a tool by other nations to fight for their interests. While NATO and the EU are allies of Ukraine and frequently provide humanitarian and military aid to help Ukraine defend itself, they are not involved in the fighting.

4. “Why doesn’t Ukraine just surrender and give Putin some territory?”

There are two main reasons why this is problematic. First, suggesting that Ukraine should surrender territory disregards and violates the Ukrainian Constitution and international treaties which uphold territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Secondly, anything that is not a complete Ukrainian victory can be used by russian propaganda to claim a victory for russia. A permanent ceasefire established on russian terms would grant russia some territorial gains. In this scenario, Putin’s regime may not have achieved its original war aims of dismantling the Ukrainian government and claiming Ukraine as its own, but russia could still gain Ukrainian land and market this as a victory to justify the war to the russian public. It could also encourage russia to pursue another attempt to claim Ukrainian territory in the future. For example, insufficient action from the international community in response to previous russian occupations, including the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the continued occupation of more than 20% of Georgian land following russia’s 2008 war against Georgia, has failed to prevent russia from conducting similar encroachments, as demonstrated by russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Furthermore, if Europe and its allies fail to adequately challenge this unprovoked aggression, other countries that may be interested in gaining territory may also feel inspired to launch violent conflict as a successful means of claiming land. If russia is allowed to claim territory in Ukraine, other countries might feel that they too can achieve territorial gains through armed force.

5. But isn’t Ukraine a divided country of Ukrainian-speaking and russian-speaking people?

For years, both in the media and academia, Ukraine has been falsely characterised by the “myth of two Ukraines”: the idea that Ukraine is a fatally divided nation between the west and east. This divide is often explained in relation to perceived cultural and political preferences, where in the west you would supposedly find only Ukrainian-speaking ultranationalists that had little tolerance for the east, while vice versa, in the east it was assumed that you would only find russian-speaking people who would prefer to be part of russia. This was believed to be as a result of russification policies, which were a form of cultural assimilation in which non-russians, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, would give up their own culture and language in favour of russia’s. However, this idea of two divided Ukraines is based on a false interpretation and visions of political and cultural realities, historical events, opinion polls, election results, cultural stereotypes, and ideological prejudices. While some researchers naively used this narrative as a shortcut to make their lives easier, others like russian propagandists use it with malicious intent aimed at questioning the existence of a Ukrainian nation altogether.

Consider this: is Germany a divided nation because Bavarians speak Bavarian and have their own local customs? Or because they have a tendency to elect other political parties than other regions? No, of course not. Even if Bavarians insist on their regional identity, they undoubtedly consider themselves as Germans. Same with Ukrainians. Ukraine is a country that consists of many different ethnic groups, such as Boykos, Lemkos, Crimean Tatars, and Hungarian and Romanian minorities, but it is one country. It is true that many Ukrainians in the East speak russian out of comfort, a remnant of soviet era russification policies which forced the population to learn russian, but they usually also speak Ukrainian or a mix of both called “surzhyk”. Naturally, like in any other country, there will always be political debate among each other, but everyone has the common good in mind.

An example worth noting today is the way that many Ukrainians are refusing to speak russian any more in protest against the russian full-scale invasion, and asking others to follow suit. There is great debate on this topic and not everyone is in agreement, but everyone will accept each others’ decisions. After all, you can frequently witness multilingual conversations in Ukrainian, “surzhyk”, and russian!

6. Why is it wrong to use “Donbas” as the name of the region?

The term “Donbas” is usually used to refer to Ukraine’s easternmost territory; however, the term is only related to geological features not geographical ones. The word “Donbas” is a shortened version of  “The Donetsk Coal Basin” which does not only include the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. At the beginning of the 20th century, soviet propaganda started to use the term “Donbas” to create myths about the specific type of population living in the region and to create division which could be used to support russian expansion. russian propaganda worked to falsely characterise this area as russian. For example, the term “Donbas” does not exist in any of the legislative acts of Ukraine. It is a term completely imposed by russia. What term should we use instead? You may be surprised by the answer, but only the terms “Donetsk and Luhansk regions” are appropriate.

7. “What’s the difference between Kyiv and Kiev?”

Although the distinction looks small, the importance of using the right spelling and pronunciation of Ukraine’s capital city is huge. ‘Kyiv’ is the English transliteration of the Ukrainian word ‘Київ’ (pronounced ki-yeev), while ‘Kiev’ comes from the russian name ‘Киев’ (kee-yev). Many Ukrainians associate the russian spelling with russian imperial and soviet era russification policies which forcibly suppressed Ukrainian language and culture. There has been greater international awareness of this issue since the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched the ‘KyivNotKiev’ campaign in 2018. But remember, it’s not only Kyiv that this applies to – try to make sure that you’re using the Ukrainian names of other cities in Ukraine too. For example, use Lviv, Kharkiv, and Odesa (not the russian names: Lvov, Kharkov, and Odessa).

8. Are there any words that Ukrainians have started using frequently since the war?

The current events are having a lasting impact on language, especially on the development of slang terminology. Often, a language seemingly lacks the right words to capture new realities. The shock and trauma of the new phase of russia’s war against Ukraine, marked by the start of the full-scale invasion in 2022, has led to the emergence of a comprehensive new vocabulary that serves as a testament to the resilience of the Ukrainian spirit and the use of humour in difficult times.

There is a false belief that the Ukrainian and russian languages are virtually the same. Apart from many differences in vocabulary, the pronunciation in Ukrainian is something else that many non-Ukrainian speakers may struggle with. A powerful way to identify, for example, a russian spy, would be asking them to pronounce the word “паляниця” (palyanytsia – a type of bread). Typically, they would replace the Ukrainian “y”- and “ya” sound with a more common for russian “i”- and “a” sound, in result saying “palianitsa”. Not only does this difference serve some practical purpose, but it serves as a humorous joke symbolising Ukrainian unity and resistance.

There are also some newer terms, like “rashism” or “ruscism”. They have been in use since the Chechen wars in the 1990s and the russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. These terms attempt to capture the essence of russian imperialism and places it in relation to the destructive ideologies of the 20th century because unlike fascism or soviet communism, rashism seems to have no clear set of rules by which it is operating. It refers to a mix of russian militarism, expansionism, anti-western rhetoric, racism, and cult of personality, though, unlike fascism and communism, for example, it seeks to manifest societal apathy.

9. “What does Slava Ukraini mean?”

Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the phrase Слава Україні! (Slava

Ukraini!, “Glory to Ukraine!”) – along with the response Героям слава! (Heroyam slava!, “Glory to the Heroes!”) – has been heard far beyond Ukraine, from speeches by world leaders to protests in solidarity with Ukraine. But the history of the phrase extends far beyond the full-scale invasion. “Slava Ukraini!” first became widely used as a national salute during the Ukrainian War of Independence from 1917-1921. It has been chanted ever since as a symbol of Ukrainian resistance against foreign oppression, including during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 when Ukrainians rose up against corruption and then-President Viktor Yanukovych in favour of justice and democracy which supported Ukraine’s political reorientation away from pro-russian views and values.

10. “Why is it so important to fight for the Ukrainian nation?”

There is only one Ukrainian nation, and Ukrainians have fought for centuries for their own freedom, which protects their language, culture, and their existence. Without it, they would lose their voice in the world and with that, their ability to make decisions about their own direction, but instead would be forced to submit to any decisions made by the oppressor. We would again run the risk of losing the beautiful sound of their language, as in history just like today, the invader is aggressively repressing the Ukrainian language being taught in schools or spoken in public. We would have to continue watching how the invaders deport Ukrainian children to russia with the aim of harming families, stripping children of their roots, and russifying them. While it is easier said than done, Ukrainian victory is the only way forward. It has been shown to be a long and difficult process, and the pain from the war will probably never go away, even after victory. But without victory, there would be nothing else but pain. It would mean tyranny and uncertainty, never knowing what the oppressors would do next and no future to look forward to. Ukraine was, and still is, a beautiful place on the track to greatness which will be fully unleashed once independence is saved.

Article Supervised by:

Freya Proudman (YEA from the UK & Coordinator of the Dialogue Initiative EU-Ukraine Working Group)

Written by members of the Dialogue Initiative EU-Ukraine Working Group:

Emma Bain (YEA from the UK)

Dominik Sujka (YEA from Germany)

Pablo Lorenzo (YEA from Spain), Nataliia Yaroshenko (YEA from Ukraine)

Article Reviewed by:

Aleksandra Golubova (YEA from Ukraine)

Viktoria Kravets (YEA from Ukraine)

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