Small Wars Journal

Stop Saying “War in Ukraine”—It Is Russia’s War Against Ukraine and Democracy

Sun, 02/12/2023 - 12:09am

Stop Saying “War in Ukraine”—It Is Russia’s War Against Ukraine and Democracy


By Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed


Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine has entered its second year. During the past months, the Kremlin has continued to engage in ongoing combat efforts, artillery shelling, and missile and drone attacks targeting civilian infrastructure across the country. The number of civilians who became victims of Russia’s atrocious assault is growing and the country’s infrastructure is in imminent danger of collapse.


Russia perpetuates its plan to depopulate the occupied parts of Ukraine and to deport both adults and children to Russia. At the same time, Russian teachers arrive in Russia-occupied Ukrainian towns and cities and diligently follow the orders of their Russian “bosses” beating into the heads of Ukrainian children Russia’s vision of Ukraine: “Ukraine as a sovereign state does not exist” and “Ukrainians are confused about their nationality—in essence, you are Russians who, under the influence of external Western forces, erroneously decided that you are Ukrainians. Ukrainians do not exist!”


In spite of Russia’s ongoing hostilities in Ukraine, the international community remains quite hesitant and very often unclear regarding how to define “the situation on the ground.” Unfortunately, an ambiguous and feeble description of Russia’s barbaric war perseveres: “crisis” and “conflict” are often used to avoid the term that clearly describes what Russia launched against Ukraine: war.  Moreover, quite often in media space, there is a misleading formulation: “War in Ukraine.” What is going on in Ukraine Who is the perpetrator? What country has to be held accountable?


To be clear: Russia has been engaging in a full-scale invasion of Ukraine for one year. However, Russia has been systematically waging war against Ukraine since the occupation of Crimea and Donbas in 2014.


After February 24, 2022, scholars and commentators preferred to call it “Putin’s war” as if taken back by this brutal military aggression. Shortly after the assault, Frontline PBS released a documentary “Putin’s Road to War.” One of the speakers specified that it was “Putin’s war,” not Russia’s war. To be fair, the documentary clearly describes how Putin arrived at his “final solution” and how it was brought into execution. But the film also fell into the lines of those who were hoping that Russian society would rise and protest against the Kremlin’s brutality.


There were a few protests in Russia immediately after February 24, 2022. The number of people defying the Kremlin regime’s military decisions was much lower than the number of protesters who had flooded the streets a few years prior demanding the cancelation of the rigged elections. In January, when a Russian missile hit a residential building in Dnipro killing more than forty people, a few silent “flower protests” took place in towns and cities across Russia. At the same time, more than 70 percent of people in Russia support the war against Ukraine. Moreover, according to Lev Gudkov, Russian sociologist and director of the Levada Center, there is little compassion toward the suffering of Ukrainians which is inflicted by Russia: “The Russians have little compassion for the Ukrainians. Almost no one here talks about the fact that people are being killed in Ukraine.” The public opinion that dominates Russian society is that Ukraine is part of Russia and that it has been overtaken by “the collective West.” For more than twenty years, Putin has certainly contributed to this collective perception of Ukraine in Russia. What we should pay close attention to, however, is why the level to which the Russians echo the views first broadcast by Putin and his supporters is so overwhelming.


After one year of the heinous atrocities, educational and research institutions, as well as media venues, re-incorporate formulations such as “the Ukraine war” or “war in Ukraine,” as if trying to find a way to not put full responsibility on Russia. This echoes a statement made by Emmanuel Macron, President of France, a few months into the brutal all-out war, suggesting that Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, should consider concessions on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine to help Putin “save face.”  


A year ago, there was some hope it was indeed “Putin’s war.” But twelve months have elapsed and today there is more silence in Russia than last February. After the first wave of mobilization in the fall of 2022, thousands of Russians fled the country. Now they live outside the immediate threat of censorship, surveillance, and persecution. Are there a lot of massive anti-Putin and anti-Kremlin protests organized by Russians outside Russia? Is there a pervasive presence of Russian academics that openly recognize their little, if any, knowledge of Ukraine? Unfortunately, no. Instead, many scholars from Russia who managed to leave the country express their opinions on Ukraine without really studying the country, its history, and its culture. This is an eloquent example of an imperialist mentality when one can fake their expertise by re-applying Russian knowledge to the Ukrainian case. In this epistemological framework shaped by imperialist attitudes, Ukraine is nothing more than “an extension of Russia.”


How many more civilians should be killed in Ukraine for the world to take a stance and name things for the way they are? How much destruction is needed to finally dismantle a long-lasting fascination with “the mysterious Russian soul”? Disrespect toward human rights, political neighbors and partners, toward law, freedom, and democracy constitute the very core of Russia today. It is not simply Putin’s war—it is Russia’s war against Ukraine, against democracy and freedom, human dignity and the value of life.  


About the Author(s)

Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Russian and Eurasian Studies Program at Colgate University (Hamilton, NY). She has a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literatures (Indiana University, 2022). She also holds a Ph.D. in American literature (Taras Shevchenko Institute of Literature, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, 2007). Her research interests include contested memory, with the focus on Ukraine and Russia. She is a review editor of H-Ukraine. Since 2016, she has been a host on the New Books Network (Ukrainian Studies, East European Studies, and Literary Studies channels).