Unraveling the language of the Ukraine War 

By Daniel Blanch

With the Ukraine war, the current state of affairs in International Relations has evolved significantly from political stability and democracy-building to a renewed Cold-War emphasis on conflicting coalitions. It is important to consider the challenges democracies face when addressing the language of international crises. Arguments in the public arena and media tend to be simplified in times of war, leaving room for political theory to enter the debate and offer a rational and normative analysis of democracies’ obligations to humanity. Assessments of how a military emphasis leads to displacing from the national agenda elements of the struggle for human progress should be used to counterbalance the view that opposing expansive foreign aggression is the prime objective of democracies at this time. Can countries oppose foreign injustices and at the same time reinforce commitments at home that build better democracies? As the Biden Administration and other democratic leaders provide support for Ukraine, can they also maintain their own domestic agendas? Or do they find themselves allocating more of their resources to military assets and postponing social goals?  

The EU divisions 

There has been much debate about the current Ukraine war but not so much on the words used and the concepts and language behind it. The language of war is central to any conflict, and much of it is jingoistic. The intent here is not to argue a specific view on the Ukraine war, but to discuss the words and concepts we use for it and how these characterize the countries involved. When Western countries say that the Ukraine war is about defending democracy, they are using unclear language since the central goal for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his backers is to defend borders and the rule of law that maintains territorial integrity.  

Spain has clearly aligned with Ukraine in this conflict and been quick to support the various diplomatic initiatives that do so. This is in accord with Spain’s role in NATO and also its economic ties to such a major grain producing country as Ukraine. Spain has also been quick to join many other countries in condemning Russia’s aggression and has been supplying arms to Ukraine along with humanitarian assistance.i Yet even as Spain has received increasing numbers of Ukrainian refugees (170,000+), public support for a long-term war is waning. Many other European countries, such as Poland, the Baltic States and the United Kingdom, have gone even farther in supporting Zelensky, though this might lead to escalation or be perceived as empowering an offensive capacity.  

In many ways this current war has undermined Europe’s attempts at having a values-based foreign policy and instead has led towards one that is more geopolitically focused. European strategic autonomy has lost much of its appeal as the European Union has now been shown to depend on the US for its current defense commitments. President Macron’s efforts to show that Europe is less inclined to enter a conflict in Asia seem in turn to rely on the US bearing the bulk of the global military commitments of the liberal democracies. Much has been said about the vassalization of Europe to the extent that the US provides billions of dollars-worth in military hardware and aid to Ukraine.  

The US and the current strategic landscape 

So, is this again a battle for US hegemonic leadership of the ‘free’ world? ii And if so, what sort of language has been used in the past to achieve this goal? During the Cold War, virtually every international crisis could be interpreted as a loss of freedom if the West did not act. Most conflicts were seen as part of a bigger whole, intertwined and connected with other issues and places. For decades the US and USSR opposed each other on many fronts from Latin America to Asia and threatened each other constantly in Europe by means of massive retaliation and opposing alliances. That fit an era of conflicts that were simplified into a bipolar context. The Kremlin and the White House expected to lead or dictate what would happen in proxy wars; any war might have global implications. 

In some ways we are still trapped in that imagery, and still use it. Foreign policy communities often employ zero-sum language in which a gain for one side will hurt the other; there can be no middle ground if a crisis is defined as good versus evil. One difficulty here is that it rules out effective negotiations. It becomes almost impossible to sit down around the table with the opposing side and seek some sort of peace. Maximalist language is used for fighting, but hardly fits the solution- finding process. US wars and foreign interventions that were built on absolutes during the Cold War got the public motivated to initially support the war yet often missed the chance for a compromise.iii 

Long ago, US founding father Alexander Hamilton argued that foreign policy interests and security needs were virtually infinite, and so an energetic foreign policy should be as extensive as possible, both in terms of resources and reach.iv Today that seems to be the case with global US foreign policy. In a broader sense, one must consider the language of use of nuclear weapons as the ultimate threat. In the 1970s, the USA had several thousand nuclear warheads in Europe, but in the late 1980s this number diminished after the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, an agreement from 1987 that required both the United States and the Soviet Union to eliminate all of their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. Now the current numbers are classified, but there are several US bases in Europe with these sorts of weapons, along with French and British arsenals. This is a matter of minimal deterrence in the face of Russia’s much higher numbers, but it still reminds us that we have not progressed so far beyond the Cold War language of mutually assured destruction.v 

The language of divisions and its implications 

Today there are changes in US foreign policy: within the Republican Party, there are more and more voices arguing that defending Ukraine is not a top priority, and that resources should be allocated to East Asia. Isolationist Republicans use a language of national interest to argue that coalitions like NATO are a waste of precious resources. Ironically, it is the mainline US Democrats who argue for war at this point in order to support Ukraine’s effort to stop Russian aggression. 

Disinformation and fake news are not the only problem we face in analyzing these issues; using words and concepts that lead to ongoing war can also be a problem if they preclude finding solutions. This does not mean giving in to aggression, but it may require some hard choices in regard to the possible outcomes of this conflict. Inflation and energy costs are now affecting citizens’ livelihoods, in conjunction with rising interest rates. US media outlets say this is the end of the ‘peace dividend’. This may well lead to spending cuts to the social safety net for the sake of military expenditures.vi  Ultimately, what is at stake is both the health of democracies and the rule of law. Normative thinkers are concerned with the militarization of language. During the inter-war years, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, used imagery and language that helped a generation to realize that war was not as heroic as it had been painted. While the current conflict is different from World War I, still, it is a complicated international affair that requires a major effort to get off the path towards escalation. Examining the language of conflict is a place to start. 

Daniel Blanch is Coordinator of the International Studies Program at Saint Louis University Madrid and Associate Professor in Political Science. 

To quote this article, please use the following reference: Daniel Blanch (2023), “Unraveling the language of the Ukraine War” https://crisesobservatory.es/unraveling-the-language-of-the-ukraine-war

The OCC publishes a wide range of opinions that are meant to help our readers think of International Relations. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and neither the OCC nor Saint Louis University can be held responsible for any use which may be made of the opinion of the author and/or the information contained therein.

i. https://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/en/analyses/spanish-responses-to-russias-invasion-of-ukraine/

ii. ‘All Democracy Is Global: Why America Can’t Shrink from the Fight of Freedom’, Larry Diamond, Foreign Affairs, 182 (2022)

iii. Outside of the Cold War context, the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan shows the various contenders were unable to find a middle ground after close to two decades of conflict. In terms of seeking the lesser evil, all-or-nothing language may hinder negotiated outcomes.

iv. See The Federalist Papers, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, 1778.

v. https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/nuclear-weapons-europe-mapping-us-and-russian-deployments

vi.Another aspect that should be considered is the issue of who benefits from this war? On the face of it, one might say that only Russia gains anything, if they keep Ukrainian land. But in a broader sense, there are multiple actors that have interests in bellicose enterprises. As US President Eisenhower warned in the midst of the Cold War, the military industrial complex has an interest in revenues from sales of weapons.