For more than 15 months Russia has been fighting a war in Ukraine that the Kremlin refused to call a war – but that is changing: President Vladimir Putin is using the word “war” more often.
When Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year, he called it “a special military operation” – a euphemism the Kremlin, Russian ministers and state media mostly stuck to, even coining a new Russian acronym, the “SVO”.
Calling the conflict a war was effectively outlawed for the Russian media by a series of very broad laws soon after the invasion. The Russian media was ordered not to use the word war – and has either complied or shut down.
But in response to what Russia said was a major Ukrainian drone attack on Moscow, Putin last week used the word “war” four times in relation to Ukraine, according to a Kremlin transcript of his remarks.
“No matter what we say, they will always look to apportion the blame in Russia, but this is not right: we did not unleash this war, I repeat, in 2014 – the Kyiv regime unleashed war in the Donbas,” Putin said.
That remark was shown by Rossiya state television’s most important Sunday slot. Kremlin correspondent Pavel Zarubin told viewers that Putin was devoting significant amounts of time to the conflict behind the scenes.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine began in 2014 after a pro-Russian president was toppled in Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and Russia annexed Crimea, with Russian-backed separatist forces fighting Ukraine’s armed forces.
On the May 9 Victory Day, when Russians commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, Putin told veterans on Red Square: “A real war has been unleashed against our Motherland again.”
In recent months, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Wagner mercenary Yevgeny Prigozhin have all used the word war – or “voina” in Russian – in public.
“We are basically living in the conditions of war,” said Vyacheslav Gladkov, the governor of Russia’s Belgorod region which has come under attack in recent weeks.
In private, the Russian elite calls it a war.
The creeping acceptance of war even in public gives a sense of how the Kremlin’s perceptions have changed – and may give an taste of the future after more than 15 months of the most deadly war in Europe since World War Two.
“It is striking just how Putin and the elite appear to be breaking their own rules,” said one Western diplomat in Moscow.
“What is more important is what is says about the future: does war mean a more serious approach and what will Russia at war look like?”
Euphemisms for war are nothing new.
U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson cast growing involvement in the Vietnam war as “limited military action” while the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was cast as “Operation Enduring Freedom” by U.S. President George W. Bush.
When Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev triggered the 10-year Afghan-Soviet war in 1979, Moscow cast the invasion as an operation “to provide international assistance to the friendly Afghan people.”
“You must remember and be aware that the SVO was invented at a time when they thought they would win quickly and bloodlessly, like in the Crimea,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speech writer.
“But now it is clear to everyone that this is a war. And it became clear a long time ago when everyone realized that the blitzkrieg had failed.”
Kremlin transcripts show Putin has recently repeatedly used the word in relation to what he says is an information and sanctions “war” unleashed by the West against Russia as well as blaming Ukraine for a conflict that is now spilling over.
Last year, he used the term sparingly.
When he claimed four Ukrainian regions as parts of Russia in September, he described the conflict as a war, in October he said the West was “inciting war”, and in December was even more explicit, talking of “this war”.
That prompted Nikita Yuferev, a councillor in St Petersburg, to file a complaint. It went nowhere, Yuferev said, along with complaints against the use of the word by other officials.
“Sooner or later we are going to get to the point when everyone calls it a war and recognises it as a war,” Yuferev told Reuters. “And war can mean martial law, the mobilisation of the economy, mobilisation of the military and reservists.”
RUSSIA AT WAR
The Kremlin has said there is no plan for martial law or a further mobilisation after a limited one last year.
But Putin approved amendments last month allowing elections under martial law and defence companies have brought in extra shifts to work almost around the clock.
Attacks far inside Russia that Moscow blamed on Ukraine have stiffened opinion within the Kremlin, emboldening hawks who propose a much tougher approach to a war in which Putin has said Russia has not got even got serious yet.
In Moscow, the war is cast as existential, and decorated with Russian Orthodox symbolism.
Russian mercenary Prigozhin, who accuses Putin’s top brass of ruining the Russian army, raised the prospect of events unfolding as they did under the dictatorship of Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet.
“People write to me that we need to do a Chile to defend ourselves: Chile – that is a Pinochet; Chile is the elite of Russia – or above all the bureaucratic elite – in a stadium surrounded by people with automatic weapons,” Prigozhin said.
“This is not a game,” he said. “We are losing this war.”