How Words Can Change a War

Drummers of the Minsk Suvorov Military School. (Photo via Wikipedia)




We all know how propaganda works, how deliberately chosen words become cogs in our war machines, whipping up certain emotions on purpose. But we forget how subtly those word choices can play out, and sometimes we cooperate unwittingly.

Israel “occupied” East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights after the 1967 war, for example, and has since “annexed” them. But because these annexations won no international recognition, we prefer to speak generally of Israeli-occupied territories. Yet the media and officialdom insist on referring to the Russian “occupation” of Crimea in 2014 as an “annexation” Both countries first occupied, then annexed. Israel “occupied” territory after a war. Russia’s “annexation” of territory was unprovoked. Why the difference in language?

First, what do the two words even mean? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “annexation” is “the action or process of joining to or uniting. “Occupation” is the action of taking possession, esp. of a place or of land; seizure, as by military conquest, etc.; entrance upon possession.”

“The purported annexation of Crimea does not change the status of Crimea as an occupied territory,” wrote the Ukrainians who founded the Euromaidan Press in 2014. “Crimea remains under the control of Russian forces and Russian authorities without the consent of Ukraine.” They added that the phrase should be “illegal annexation,” not just “annexation,” because “‘annexation’ means acquiring territory by force and is a flagrant violation of international law.”

They are right, but only the most careful writers tack on “illegal” every time, and to the world’s ears, annexation sounds gentler than occupation, more of a practical bureaucratic shift that redraws some lines. Also, annexation sounds permanent, while occupation sounds temporary.

It is interesting, at times like these, to read old newspapers. In July 1938, The New York Times reported Germany’s “annexation” of Austria. (At the time, Washington was insisting that the United States would not send troops to war, and Europe’s big powers were mounting sanctions to stop the Nazis, and everybody was worried about oil.)

Now, the Russians do not even like the use of “annexation”; they see their military actions as merely restoring their nation’s proper boundaries. What analysts at Brookings called “the biggest land-grab in Europe since World War II” was, to Vladimir Putin, the fulfillment of a historical claim—whether the population wished to be restored to Russia or not. The word “Russian” is itself up for debate: Putin once wrote an article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” insisting that they are brother nations, one part of the Great Russians, the other one of the Little Russians, and meant to be ruled over by a csar of all the Russias.

Similarly, there are Israelis who claim East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights are within the borders of the ancient Kingdom of Israel. But borders are curious things. They change. Those who benefit claim that the new borders are set in stone; those who lose claim the old borders were set in stone. And in time, the borders will change again, perhaps benefiting a third party.

Wars often begin over disputed borders and the territories beyond them. The U.S. war with Mexico began as a result of an armed clash in a disputed border area. A border clash began Italy’s war against Ethiopia in 1935. Will Putin use a border clash in “occupied” eastern Ukraine to begin a similar war of conquest? And if he does, the inevitable question must be asked and answered: does it matter to us? Yes, if we are part of an international community that has tried for the last century to create and maintain an international system based on laws and norms of conduct. Laws and norms that are made up of words. “Ukraine is not even a state,” Putin announced last Monday. Yet he went on to say that “the Ukrainian authorities—I would like to emphasize this—began by building their statehood on the negation of everything that united us.” He could not speak of recent history without using the very category he had denied them.

Putin also refused to call his country’s military aggression an “invasion.” After a press grilling, the White House temporarily stopped using the word too, noting that Russian troops have been in separatist areas since 2014, which would make this an “escalation.” But by the time Biden addressed the nation, it was an invasion again—and soon the word was hard to refute.

Gary Kasparov, who understands chess on boards both small and large, characterized what is happening as a dictator formally announcing annexation after years of military occupation. But to the Russians, it was “peacekeeping,” as they entered the two breakaway regions of Ukraine—calling them “republics”—and insisted on a need to protect them, as columnist Max Boot put it, “from imaginary threats. The Russian troops are ‘peacekeepers,’ of course, in the same sense that the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was an expression of ‘legitimate political discourse.’ This is another Orwellian use of language by those bent on destroying truth as a means of destroying democracy.”

Poor George. He probably hoped not to be this prophetic, hoped politicians would begin to speak plainly and honestly. Instead, there are codes and euphemisms and supercharged valences. Are the semantics of word choice worth unpacking? They just might be. Putin’s actions are not without precedent. In 1908, Austria-Hungary “annexed” Bosnia-Herzegovina, territory it had “occupied” since 1878. That change in status was one of the causes of World War I.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.