Is It War? Ukraine Conflict Definition Softens in West

A Ukrainian inside the Youth Culture Center building that was hit by pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Aug. 28, 2014.

For governments in the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania, Russia has invaded Ukraine and the two countries are now at war. Head further west, and they’re less sure what to call it.

While all agree that a line has been crossed, U.S and NATO officials prefer to speak of an “incursion,” the word used by President Barack Obama at a White House press conference yesterday. French leaders have warned President Vladimir Putin of more sanctions without defining what Russia has done.

“In the past 48 hours, we have tipped into a formal invasion,” Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, said in a Bloomberg television interview. “Russia and Ukraine as sovereign countries are now at war and it’s going to be very difficult for the United States and Europe to deny that.”

Calling it war or an invasion would force the U.S. and European Union to consider steps they’ve been unwilling to take, short of military action, Bremmer said. While sanctions have been imposed on some areas of the Russian economy, Europe continues to rely on Russia for natural-gas imports and Russian trade with the EU was worth about $390 billion last year.


“The EU appears to have exhausted its politically feasible options in the previous round” of sanctions, Ievgen Vorobiov, an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw, said in a telephone interview.

Photographer: Alexander Ermochenko/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A Ukrainian inside the Youth Culture Center building that was hit by pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Aug. 28, 2014. Close

A Ukrainian inside the Youth Culture Center building that was hit by pro-Russian... Read More

Photographer: Alexander Ermochenko/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A Ukrainian inside the Youth Culture Center building that was hit by pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Aug. 28, 2014.

Plus, international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund would be limited in the assistance they could provide if Ukraine were in an official state of war, Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko said July 22. The IMF board today is expected to approve the second tranche of a $1.4 billion package for Ukraine.

Troop Buildup

Standoff in Ukraine

Pro-Russian insurgents widened their attacks this week on Ukraine government forces, taking several towns outside their strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, including near the Sea of Azov. There are currently 20,000 Russian troops in the border region, with 1,000 operating inside Ukraine, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization military officer estimated yesterday.

Latvia’s Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said on Twitter that Russia’s actions amount to a “war” that should be taken up by the United Nations Security Council. The Foreign Ministry in Lithuania, another former Soviet satellite state that’s now one of the EU’s 28 members, said it “strongly condemns the invasion of Ukrainian territory by Russian Federation military forces, which has obviously begun.”

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, speaking on Polish radio, said that the entry of Russian troops into Ukraine “violates a whole menu of international treaties.”

The conflict -- war or otherwise -- has cost almost 2,600 lives, and there’s no sign it is easing.

Bellicose Language

Further west, French President Francois Hollande said in Paris this week that it would be “unacceptable” if Russian troops were on Ukraine soil, without saying if they were. An adviser to Hollande, who asked not to be named because he isn’t authorized to talk to the press, said bellicose language from the west strengthens Putin’s narrative that it’s Russia’s former Cold War foes who created the conflict.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a claim to be the European leader with the best understanding of the Cold War after growing up in East Germany, also threatened more sanctions. Reports from Ukraine indicate “a Russian military intervention,” Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s chief spokesman, said at a news briefing in Berlin today.

In Washington, Obama stuck to the word “incursion,” and said the latest Russian actions in Ukraine are a “continuation of what’s been taking place for months,” while Republican critics of his foreign policy lambasted the administration’s language on the issue.

‘Orwellian Universe’

“Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine can only be called one thing: a cross-border military invasion,” Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said in a statement yesterday. “To claim it is anything other than that is to inhabit President Putin’s Orwellian universe.”

“The line between a proxy war and regular war has been crossed but this doesn’t matter because Putin is denying it and the West is unable to prove it with a watertight case,” Jan Techau, director of the Brussels office of the Carnegie Endowment, said in a phone interview.

Merkel wants to give Putin “a way out, a way to climb down without losing face,” Techau said. “I don’t see a willingness on the part of the West to get out of this narrative.”

Reality Check

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Aug. 27 that reports of Russian troops operating in Ukraine don’t “correspond with reality.” Peskov declined to comment yesterday on Ukrainian claims of an invasion or rebel comments about Russian soldiers joining the war.

The prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, said on Russian state television that any Russian military personnel in Ukraine were volunteers on leave.

For now, “the most likely scenario is a limited, targeted campaign, using Russian troops as necessary, under however thin a fig leaf of deniability, to resupply and bolster the separatists in key strategic locations,” said Emmet Tuohy, an analyst with the International Centre for Defence Studies in Tallinn, Estonia. “A full-scale war with Ukraine is not in Russia’s interests or plans.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Gregory Viscusi in Paris at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alan Crawford at Andrew J. Barden

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