24 May Russian “Special Military Operation” and the Language of Empire
[Kostia Gorobets is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Transboundary Legal Studies at the University of Groningen.]
The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine that has caused enormous human suffering and destruction has also produced conflicting narratives. Or instance, the fact that Russian authorities and state media are so careful in trying to avoid using the word “war,” and speak of a “special military operation” instead, is quite remarkable. Many casually brush off this term as a silly piece of Russian newspeak, as though not worthy of attention. However, Russia has not chosen to name its war in this way randomly. The language it uses is not of a mere academic interest; paying attention to it may reveal a lot in terms of Russian political long-term aims and plans. These plans, of course, have nothing to do with prevention of genocide or protection of Russian-speaking population in Ukraine (which suffers most from this war). Russia is trying to rebuild its empire, and the language of “special military operation” is a reflection of this goal.
The language and logic of empire relies on inequality and subordination. There can be no equal relations between the empire and its constitutive parts. And so, there is no place for war within the empire, because the very concept of war assumes equality in status: one state (or empire) is at war with another state (or empire). This is precisely why Vladimir Putin and Russian state media are so persistent in claiming that it is the West, NATO, the US, the neo-Nazis, the Anglo-Saxons, or some other worthy enemy who they are really at war with. It is these mighty adversaries who are equal in status and whom Russia wants to speak and fight with. To be great, you need to have great enemies.
What war can there be with Ukraine? Within the logic of empire, it can in no way have a status equal to imperial Russia’s; it is but a colony and so it only deserves a “special military operation.” Unlike war, a “special military operation” does not imply equality of status. In fact, this term utilizes the logic of inequality, as when state authorities conduct a police or anti-terrorist operation thus exercising their monopoly on the use of force. The narrative of a “special military operation” is imperialistic precisely because it assumes that Russia is using force within its own domain, of which Ukraine is but a part. This involves an element of doublespeak. On the one hand, Ukraine is technically a separate independent state with its own government. On the other hand, Russian authorities consider it to be a fake country invented by some destructive forces, and so it is actually part of Russia, as Putin argued in his infamous article. This is why there is really nothing puzzling about Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement that Russia never attacked Ukraine. How can you attack and invade a territory that is yours to begin with?
The narrative of a “special military operation” thus uses the language of policing, not of genuine military confrontation. Note the resemblance in the Russian way of naming the use of its armed forces: “operation on the restoration of the constitutional order in Chechnya” (the First Chechen War), “counter-terrorist operation on the territory of Northern Caucasus region” (the Second Chechen War), “peace enforcement operation” (the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008), and now “special military operation.” Russia does not fight wars, it conducts “operations,” because wars can only be fought with equals.
What does all this reveal about Russia’s invasion? First, it explains why Vladimir Putin has been so reluctant to hold any direct negotiations with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, despite the fact that the Ukrainian President has called for such negotiations, not only since the start of this phase of the conflict, but already since the moment he became a presidential candidate. Obviously, any direct negotiations with Zelenskyy would place him symbolically as Putin’s equal. This is unthinkable and intolerable within the logic of empire. Putin wants talks with Zelenskyy only if such talks would in fact be an act of subjugation and humiliation. Any other scenario would mean Putin’s defeat and Zelenskyy’s victory, and it would also mean the destruction of the imperial narrative.
Second, given how strong and consistent this imperialistic narrative has become, I am somewhat sceptical about intelligence reports that Putin is getting ready to declare war against Ukraine (which he did not do on 9 May, as some expected). Such reports make perfect sense within the logic of an armed conflict between formally equal belligerent parties; it is becoming more and more obvious that declaring the martial law and initiating mobilization is the only way for Russia to keep the war going. But this is not the logic within which Russia operates, and so these reports seem to miss the point. Not only the declaration of war would confirm the fact that Russia’s professional army has failed, but it would also elevate Ukraine to the status of an equal adversary, which would obviously ruin the whole carefully crafted imperialistic narrative. If Putin ever officially initiates a general or partial mobilization (in addition to current unofficial efforts to recruit “volunteers”), it would have to fit the rhetoric of confronting the true enemy. And even that would unlikely solve Russia’s military and political problems. If you declare war on the West, you must live up to the task and fight it. Capturing Kramatorsk, Slovyansk, and Sievierodonetsk in the Donbas would hardly look like crushing victories against the powerful West.
Finally, Western intellectuals in the US, Germany, and elsewhere, must stop calling upon their governments to negotiate peace with Russia, or offer it an off-ramp. Such appeals only reinforce Putin’s narrative that Russia is in fact at war with the West, and not with Ukraine. They also give credence to the imperialistic thinking about Ukraine as an imperial holding or a commodity whose status can be negotiated by “great powers.” By calling the West to negotiate with Russia, these intellectuals are strengthening the imperialistic narrative, which is quite strong in academia as well, by taking part in it.
Language matters. Words that we use to describe things constitute those very things. The language of empire is no exception. It does not merely describe the subjugation and domination, it generates it. Can Russia manage to maintain and prolong its narrative of “special military operation”? This seems less and less likely. The death of any empire begins with the erosion of its imperial narrative. Ukraine’s mission in this war, then, is not merely to survive, but, through preserving and strengthening its agency, to hit the last nail into the coffin of Russian imperialism.