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What do we call what’s happening in Ukraine? Words matter

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(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Ukrainian servicemen sit atop armored personnel carriers driving on a road in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began early Thursday morning as troops began bombarding several major cities, including the capital, Kyiv. Explosions on the ground were contrasted in the news by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of “a special military operation” to “demilitarize” Ukraine. Many observers, however, quickly dubbed the attack an “invasion.” 

That distinction in terminology matters, says Pablo Calderón Martínez, assistant professor in politics and international relations at New College of the Humanities on Northeastern’s London campus. The words we use to talk about what’s happening in Ukraine could lend an unearned legitimacy to Russia’s attacks, he says. “When you talk about ‘invasion,’ it delegitimizes the exercise,” as opposed to condoning it, Calderón Martínez says. “‘Invasion’ signifies that you are unilaterally breaking the sovereignty of another nation, violating the sovereignty of another nation.”

Putin has long waged a war of disinformation  to foment support for his military actions, selectively choosing phrases that would evoke a certain response in speeches and other contexts. In the case of the current invasion of Ukraine, Putin used the phrase “de-nazification” and talked about preventing “genocide.” (There is no evidence of genocide going on in Ukraine.)

“Those words are so charged with meaning, and there’s no basis in reality for those words,” says Mai’a Cross, the Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Northeastern. “The terminology really matters.”

Continue reading at News@Northeastern.

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