After nearly 10 months of the war, but referring to the brutal invasion of Ukraine instead as “a special military operation,” Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday finally called it a “war” for the first time, setting off an uproar among antiwar Russians who have been prosecuted for merely challenging the Kremlin-approved euphemism.
“Our goal is not to spin this flywheel of a military conflict, but, on the contrary, to end this war,” Putin said during a televised news conference following a government meeting on Thursday. “This is what we are striving for.”
Exactly what Putin has been striving for has been a subject of much consternation and debate, especially in Ukraine, where thousands have been killed and cities have been flattened, and in Western capitals that have sent billions in weapons and economic aid to Kyiv to help the country withstand Russia’s aggression.
Putin has alternately said that he is seeking to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, to “liberate” Russian-speaking regions in the southeast of the country, and to stop NATO countries, especially the United States, from trying to destroy Russia. He has denied wanting to conquer the country and topple the government, an assertion undermined by his failed effort to invade and occupy Kyiv.
What Putin had not said until Thursday was that the fighting in Ukraine, whatever the goal, is, in fact, a “war.”
Putin used the term “special military operation” in his early morning announcement on Feb. 24, the day his full-scale invasion began. It seemed to be an effort to stress that what was about to unfold would not drastically affect the lives of ordinary Russians. Instead, he sold the idea of a limited operation conducted by a small number of professional soldiers.
After several days of antiwar protests in Russia and critical coverage in the last few remaining independent media outlets, the Russian authorities rushed to suppress criticism and effectively mandate the use of “special military operation” by passing draconian laws to prohibit “spreading fakes” and “discrediting” the army, which essentially made it illegal to call the war a “war.”
Mass protests were crushed and many Russians fled the country fearing prosecution. The few remaining activists who took to the streets to do solo pickets were immediately swept away by the police and fined, even some who held up blank pieces of paper.