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The Ukrainian conflict, the Ukrainian crisis — what is wrong with these terms?

The events that took place on February 24, 2022 in Ukraine shocked the whole world, and this is by no means an exaggeration. When we recovered a few days later, more or less understood where it is safe in our rapidly shrinking world, and began monitoring the media coverage of the war in our country, we saw a tremendous increase in publications mentioning Ukraine. I remember now how we were afraid that "the world would get tired of our war" and Ukraine would disappear from the view of the Western media. A year later, coverage of war crimes by the Russian Federation and aid from partner countries in the Western media remains high. But everything is in order.

Definitely, even before February 24, the number of publications about Ukraine was growing — due to the warnings from Biden and US intelligence about the concentration of Russian troops on the Ukrainian borders. The Latin spelling "Ukraine" has been mentioned in the media around the world on September 2, 2021 1.8 thousand times, on February 15, 2022 — 7.8 thousand times, on February 23 — 11.4 thousand times, on February 24 — 25.2 thousand times. I am sure that the vast majority of my compatriots would do anything to prevent this from happening, and Ukraine continued to be mentioned relatively infrequently, and only in connection with, for example, the export of sunflower oil or one of the American singers who shot a video in Kiev this time.

Both the American and European media covered the events in Ukraine very quickly and effectively.

The main fear we had about the Western media was the extent to which "Russian-born" manipulations and fakes would penetrate them. Fortunately, we saw a very consolidated and responsible position of the media: foreign journalists did not spread information about "Nazis in power in Kyiv", narratives of Russian propaganda "we do not touch the civic infrastructure", "Ukrainians shoot at themselves" and other absurd allegations. Why are we so worried that these narratives will poison the foreign media if they are so absurd that it seemed that no adequate person could take them seriously? Because the Russians believe this statement.

For Ukraine now, in addition to the direct war with the Russian armed forces, the fight against misinformation and manipulation is very crucial. In addition to more or less obvious fakes, including those listed above, it is important to say what is happening. The slogan of the Russian Federation's propaganda front is that it is not a war, but a "special operation" in Ukraine, meaning — "special military operation to protect Luhansk Region and Donetsk Region", the purpose of which is the "demilitarization and denazification" of Ukraine (source).

Looking back, we remember how Roskomnadzor (The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) initially demanded from the mass media to remove "unreliable information" about the war with Ukraine. This censorship institution in Russia sent a notice demanding to limit access to certain publications to the mass media because they published "unreliable socially significant information that doesn't correspond to reality" about the shelling of Ukrainian cities by Russian troops and the death of Ukrainian civilians, as well as "materials, in which the operation is called an attack, invasion or declaration of war" (source). Then the Russian Federation went further and on March 4, the so-called "fake law" was adopted, which imposes punishment (up to three years in prison) for the dissemination of unreliable information about the actions of the Russian military (source). Any news that differs from the position broadcast by the official Kremlin and the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation is considered unreliable information. And to consolidate the effect, on March 21, Meta (Facebook and Instagram) was recognized as an extremist organization, and its activities were banned in Russia (source). Subsequently, Twitter was also blocked for spreading "illegal information" (source). In this way, the internal information space of the Russian Federation was brought under control.

The publications on Russian websites, in which European and American leaders seem to use the terminology of Russian propaganda, look comical. You read the headline, for example, "The EU leadership strongly condemns Russia's special military operation in Ukraine» (source), and you believe that the "EU leadership", of course, expressed itself in such terms.

Roskomnadzor's actions to call armed aggression in obscure and abstract terms "operations" are aimed at ensuring that the recipients of such a narrative can imagine as little as possible and have as few associations with these words as possible. It is quite easy to remember the word "operation", it is a common word present in the lexicon of any Russian-speaking person, as well as the word "special", but together and even in the context of "non-war" in Ukraine they do not carry for the average person of any sense, do not generate any images in the imagination and historical parallels. This is very a convenient tool for propaganda — in such "empty" words in this context, you can put anything, and most importantly — to deny something that during war would be extremely difficult to deny, namely — the destruction of homes, shelling of maternity hospitals, kindergartens, killings of civilians, shelling of humanitarian corridors, massive shelling of energy infrastructure using missiles, the purpose of which is to target large targets in the sea, etc. In war, unfortunately, such things are possible, but if it is a "special operation" — of course not, don't you know that a special operation is only about military facilities and that’s all?! This is how Russians answer awkward questions about the death of their "brotherly people", i.e. Ukrainians (source).

The European publications we have analyzed, fortunately, understand the obvious substitution of concepts with the Russian narrative of "special operation." This concept is used in the European media only in quotation marks when quoting Russian sources. However, there are less obvious problems with naming events in Ukraine. Incorrect wording is far from innocent, as the way the situation is called, it immediately sets the framework for its understanding by people.

We have analyzed 275 thousand publications from the top 50 mass media of the European Union countries, the USA, Great Britain and China for the period from February 24, 2022 to February 23, 2023, which mentioned Ukraine and Russia. We found a total of 1,523 publications in which the phrase "Ukrainian crisis" appears. This phrase was used in 39 sources and appeared in the top mass media of all countries. 2,699 publications from 41 sources mention the "Ukrainian conflict". In total 4,129 publications from the 42 top sources analyzed mentioned one of these two terms.

Examining the publications with the designation "Ukrainian crisis" or "Ukrainian conflict", we found that sometimes in such materials, in addition to these designations, more clear and specific words are used as well, such as war and invasion. We managed to analyze how many of the publications we found mentioning the analyzed incorrect terms didn't use the correct terms "war" and "invasion" at the same time, and it turned out that such cases occur quite often in the top media. Of all the identified cases of the use of the phrase "Ukrainian crisis" 77% of publications did not use the words "war" and "invasion". On average, such publications account for 0.5% of all publications with mentions of Russia and Ukraine in the top media of the EU, USA, and Great Britain, however, if we take into account the top media of China, the average figure will increase to 3.2%. The same applies to the "Ukrainian conflict": also in 77% of cases, the words "war" and "invasion" are not used next to this phrase. The average share of such publications from all publications on this topic by country is 0.6%, but this figure in some countries reached 1.7-1.9%. It is worth noting that China's top mass media consistently use the incorrect designation "Ukrainian crisis" in 25% of all materials about the war in Ukraine, but do not use the wording "Ukrainian conflict" at all.

We would like there to be fewer cases when the Russian aggression in Ukraine is described by the media as the "Ukrainian crisis" and the "Ukrainian conflict" and does not use more direct and specific words that better describe the essence of events in Ukraine. But publications that use correct and incorrect wording as synonyms also distort the facts. After all, "war" and "crisis" are not synonymous.

Calling Russia's attack on Ukraine a "Ukrainian crisis", we seem to be excluding Russia from the situation as an active participant in this situation. It looks as if there was a crisis in Ukraine itself for internal reasons, that is, of course, something bad, why, perhaps, we can sympathize, but this is the internal affairs of the country, right? Maybe they are to blame for what happened? It should be understood that for many Europeans the events of 2014 in Ukraine are still not fully understood, and Ukraine itself does not seem so close and clear as the country, at least not enough to read unambiguously between the lines of the messages about the "Ukrainian crisis".

We have been hearing Russian narratives for many years that there were no Russian troops in Crimea: in March 2014, Putin said that the "green men" were local self-defense forces, and in November 2014 he said that "our armed forces, frankly, blocked the armed forces of Ukraine stationed in the Crimea". You can read about the stages of Putin's confessions here. The same applies to the occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk regions: in April 2014, Vladimir Putin directly stated that there were no Russian troops in Luhansk Region and Donetsk Region, but, of course, there is much evidence of their actual presence, just a few: the British research group Forensic Architecture presented evidence of the presence of Russian military equipment; the Rostov court heard a case concerning "food for sending to the military units of the Russian armed forces stationed on the territory of LPR (The Luhansk People's Republic) and DPR (The Donetsk People's Republic) (source). An ironic term "ichthamnet" (lit. they are not there) (source) was used to denote such a gross denial of the Russian military's involvement in the events in Ukraine. Therefore, it is extremely important to emphasize Russia's direct participation in the war, not to forget that this time "they are right here".

The Ethics Journalism Commission has released an open letter covering the Russian invasion, which states that Russia has conducted and continues to conduct numerous disinformation campaigns that infiltrate and distort public discourse. Journalists insist that «One common error is to use terms like "crisis", "conflict" or "military operation", or call it "Ukrainian" i.e. "Ukraine Crisis" or "Ukraine conflict". This is a full scale invasion of, and war against, Ukraine. We ask you to correctly indicate Russia’s role in the war with the wording "Russia’s war in Ukraine" and/or "Russian invasion of Ukraine", especially in captions, headlines, leads and hashtags» (source). In the 2016 Handbook on Conflict Journalism in the framework of the OSCE project, a separate section on the terms of international humanitarian law defines the term "international armed conflict" - "armed attack by one state on the territory of another state and warfare". "International armed conflict" is usually distinguished from "war" on the basis of the idea that the armed conflict has limited goals (not the conquest of the whole country, for example, but only part), and a relatively small area of ​​action. It is important that "in order to determine the existence of an international armed conflict, it is not necessary for the parties to declare a state of war. It is also not necessary to recognize the state of war by all parties to the conflict" (source). The concept of conflict is now used more often than the concept of "war" because it is broader, not limited to formal moments of declaration of war, but also (admittedly) because the world community is trying to adhere to the thesis that after the terrible aftermath of World War II there would be no thoughts of repeating a terrible mistake and starting a real, full-scale war. We can not argue with this somewhat sentimental narrative and consider the phrase "Russian-Ukrainian conflict" to be generally correct. It is permissible to use it because the presence of two parties to the conflict is clearly indicated. Although in parentheses it should be noted that the contribution of these two countries to the conflict is far from equal.

The use of the term "armed conflict" without specifying "international" to denote the war in Ukraine is clearly incorrect. The Media Detector points out: "this term is commonly used when there is a civil war or when a nation is fighting for independence and wants to secede" (source). Equally incorrect is the expression "Ukrainian conflict", which does not emphasize the direct participation of another country in this conflict. The Institute of Mass Media (source) agrees with this statement. The term "Ukrainian conflict" gives the impression that it is an internal affair of Ukraine, or that Ukraine is an active party, the initiator of the conflict. Russia's role is completely erased from the naming of the situation, and this should not be allowed.

According to the results of the year has passed since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the mentions of the phrases "Ukrainian crisis" and "Ukrainian conflict" in the world's top media, in general, do not exceed 4% of all publications selected for analysis (without taking into account whether other names are available in the publications - the words "war" and "invasion"). This is a relatively small figure, but there is a country whose top media reports this figure as high as 25%, and it is, as you might have guessed, China. The situation in the information field of China generally reflects the ambiguous attitude of the leadership of this country to the war that the Russian Federation is waging in Ukraine.

When we looked at the array of data with correct and incorrect wording regarding the Russian-Ukrainian war, we noticed that the same top media can use both in different materials. It can be concluded that there is no clear editorial policy regarding the terms and wording that should be used about an international conflict in which one state attacks another.

Regarding the fatigue of the world community from our war, the fears of which are discussed in the first paragraph, it can be seen that the number of mentions of Ukraine in the world's top 50 media during the year gradually decreases, especially if compared with the first months of the full-scale invasion. However, it should be noted that the splash in mentions of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was caused by the shock of the start of a big war in Europe. When the shock of the first months passed, the number of mentions in the world media predictably decreased but remains at a high level. For example, there are now 22 times more mentions of Ukraine in top world media than in February 2021. The results of a study by the international research company Ipsos Group, which was published at the beginning of February 2023, also speak in favor of the thesis that there is no war fatigue in Ukraine. According to Ipsos Group, 64% of adults in 28 countries continue to follow news about the war, and 48% support providing arms to Ukraine (source).

We see the efforts of Ukrainian journalists and NGOs drawing attention to the war in Ukraine in general and to the importance of using correct terms in journalism, and the problems of using "synonyms" to denote the Russian-Ukrainian war in particular. We want to support these efforts to draw even more attention to emphasize the essence of the events in Ukraine. It is important that the world never, neither now nor for many years after the end of this war, forget exactly what happened to Russia and our country. It is important that Ukraine is not perceived in the world as one of the "troubled" states, which is constantly experiencing internal conflicts, which are difficult to understand and therefore not necessary. No, Ukraine is a country attacked by Putin after eight years of inciting separatism in the Luhansk Region and Donetsk Region and annexing Crimea.

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