The War of the Words

Cold war heating up quickly as UN Security Council convenes on Russia and Ukraine-conflict.

On the 9th and 10th of November NATO reported “thousands of Russian troops, along with columns of tanks, artillery and air-defence systems crossing the Russian-Ukraine border into Eastern Ukraine”. (1) Though in essence this constitutes a textbook military invasion by almost any definition, nevertheless such words were avoided and reports resorted to “incursion” in a new exercises of semantic acrobatics.

Previously, the hostilities worsened between The West and Russia, following the pro-separatist self-rule referendum in the eastern part of the country on 2nd of November. Combined with several other incidents with Russian military along NATO-borders, and now these troop-movements, the UN Security Council(UNSC) decided to hold an emergency session on Wednesday 12th November to discuss these recent developments. (2)

Semantics rule at the UN

Though one might expect a meeting of the UNSC to be a rather diplomatic performance. As words have meaning and most of the diplomatic work will be done off-camera. However, at this 26th meeting of the UNSC on the situation on Ukraine and Russia, a more heated exchange surfaced (3).

After a factual opening statement by the chair (Australia) and detailed briefing by OSCE representatives through video teleconference from Kyiv, the US, voiced by Ambassador Samantha Power, went in all the way: She had no hesitation to state beyond any doubt that Russia was the one who was “flagrantly violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Power continued: “Rather than withdrawing its military forces, Russia is surging more forces across the border into Ukraine. And whereas at the Minsk agreement all sides committed to immediately free all hostages and illegally held persons, yet Russia and the separatists still hold about 500 captives.”

The UK, by Representative Sir Mark Lyall Grant, supported the viewpoint of the US, and added an extra accusation of Russia to escalate not only peace and security, but also to undertake actions that undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty. If Russia was not supplying separatists in Eastern Ukraine, why then is it blocking expansion of monitoring by OSCE?

Contrasting was China’s representative, mr Wang Min, who, to almost anyone’s surprise, characterized the situation in Ukraine as “stable” despite recent attacks. He further mentioned that China welcomed the recent agreements on natural gas between Russia and Ukraine, referring to the new deal between Ukraine, Russia, and the EU, not mentioning the latter. Finishing up without ever mentioning the role of EU, China pressed for a “constructive dialogue” with regard to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

Again contrasting was the representative of Lithuania, Ms Murmokaitė. She was quite clear: the conflict in Ukraine was anything by an internal affair. “It is Russia’s war against Ukraine for daring to choose a different, European path”. Russia must stop threatening neighbour states and allow Ukraine’s choice for Europe to be reaffirmed by the last elections, and thus be respected.

Verbal judo: Russia vs Ukraine

As in a bad movie, the Russian representative, Mr Alexander Pankin, started off, in Russian of course, by asking the chair not allowing the meetings of UNSC to become a farce of anti-Russian propaganda.
He followed up by blaming Ukraine to use the cease fire for a new concentration of forces, and mentioned how Russia was being discouraged by a lack of response by OSCE, and even worse: neglecting large important pieces in their reports, which quickly deconstructed any trust between the involved parties. The Russians had done their homework well, and gave an impressive lesson of cold- war- “whataboutism” Finishing up that it was high time for Kiev, not Moscow, to fulfil its obligations.

Ukraine’s response, in English, was given by representative Mr Yuriy Sergeyev. After formalities, he opened with “In Russian the word “truth” has no plural form, however the word “lie” does” through which he introduced a list of major violations on the Minsk Agreements (4) (5). After detailed descriptions of the equipment, movements and troops that were spotted, Mr Sergeyev went on to ask: “The Russian delegation insisted today that its Government does not provide any military assistance to the separatists in Ukraine. This means that someone else besides the State has missiles, tanks and guns, and is supplying them to the illegal armed groups in Ukraine? Does this mean that it is not the Russian Federation’s border guard that controls its side of the Ukraine-Russia border, but someone else who is permitting the illegal crossing of military convoys?”

Essentially implying that Russia would not be in control of her own borders anymore?

Russia then responded, and in of course an even harsher tone in this blame-game: “Why was there only word on Ukraine Radio about victories on the battlefield, and not a word on achievements on the Minsk agreements?” And on the concentration of equipment on the Russian side of the border: “they are of nobody’s concern” as “they are not leaving my country. Thus, inciting such emotions in the Security Council, as if there were going to be such huge attack on Ukraine, does not help the constructive discussions.”

At this time the chair ended this session which would not have misstood the times when Andrej Gromyko minister of foreign affairs of the USSR, would participate. Of him, Henry Kissinger once said: “If you can face Gromyko for one hour and survive, then you can begin to call yourself a diplomat."

A hot war, with cold words, and winter is coming

Russia denies that it is involved in recent Ukraine escalation, but it won’t allow Ukraine to destroy its opponents either. This already shows signs that the country is heading towards a situation where a significant amount of territory in Eastern Ukraine is no longer under Kiev’s control. At this moment, Kiev is already shutting down state institutions and banking services in pro-Russian Eastern regions and “evacuate” workers. (6)

For the EU and NATO, with its tens of thousands diplomats, it remains difficult to predict the continuation of the crisis in Ukraine, or even begin to decide on any action that goes beyond sanctions. The huge reluctance to get too much involved is visible even in the difficulty the West has to choose the words to accurately describe the situation. Despite more than 4000 dead, and despite NATO’s own statements that Russia is surging more forces and equipment across the border, EU and NATO continue to decline the use of terms such as “invasion” or “war”, as such words could trigger certain responses. And in case of reluctance it is safer to remain unaware of any legal reasons to use such kind of words.

Cold war rhetoric is as hot as ever, and with the closing of the OSCE mission mandate in Ukraine in little over a week, it will quickly become clear what the harvest of these words will mean for the OSCE, Ukraine, Russia, the Eastern Ukraine, and the EU. At the same time, Ukraine still might need Russia for electricity, as despite recent EU-agreement, supplies of coal and gas are still insufficient.

And winter is coming.

Door: Ernstjan van Doorn

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