Calling it "Russia's war" will prolong the suffering of all. Call it Putin's war instead.
Updated: Sep 23
To resolve the war against Ukraine with greater haste, we must choose our words more carefully.
We petition the media, and people everywhere, to stop using the name "Russia's war" and instead use the more accurate term "Putin's War" to effectively describe the violent aggression in Ukraine.
Why we should call it "Putin's war."
Vladimir Putin's war machine benefits when more Russians think the war is 'theirs' as the name associates their national identity with the violent aggression against Ukraine. The term "Russia's war" reinforces a flawed association of war with their national identity making it easier for Russians to support the war.
Calling it "Russia's war" reinforces inaccurate stereotypes that all Russians back the war. Many Russians do not support it and cannot oppose it without risking imprisonment, jail time, conscription, and even death. Such stereotypes isolate Russians, forcing them 'together' against the world that may hate them.
Even if Russians support the war, calling it "Putin's war" isolates the aggression presently associated with their country from their core-national identity, making it easier for them to stop backing the war without sacrificing their identity.
It will amplify the focus on the primary cause of the war: Putin.
When we, and the media specifically, use language more effectively and call the war against Ukraine "Putin's war," we will no longer reinforce simple-frame that benefits Putin's war machine, and we will help focus our international response.
Please see our petition on Change.org
The war in Ukraine is a bloody conflict that has one focus: to erase the nation, and the people, of Ukraine. With hundreds of thousands of Russian invaders, and with estimates totaling more than 50 thousand soldiers dead, it is also the nation and the people of Russia who are suffering. In reality, innumerable Russians are against the war silently and vocally against it. If they speak up, unfortunately, they risk imprisonment, abuse, and even death in their opposition. So, when we as individuals and, more specifically, the media call it "Russia's war,” we do a disservice to the Russians who are powerless to change the war. Such phrasing will also make the war longer and more catastrophic, for it confuses Russians with war-mongers, working directly with Putin's desires.
So what should we say?
The war in Ukraine has a specific aggressor, and we must be clear who that aggressor is: Vladimir Putin. Even though there are Russians who enable Putin's aggression, many Russians do not. So to be more evident in our accurate presentation and to help speed the more swift resolution of the war, we need to call it what it is: "Putin's war."
Using this simple change of phrase from "Russia's war" will help in two principal ways. Firstly, it will remove a rhetorical tool that Putin uses to justify the violent actions he has enabled. Secondly, it will focus on dealing with the primary element driving the war: Putin himself.
Like all tyrannical demagogues, Putin relies on powerful propaganda to befuddle and manipulate the masses. A critical tool that Putin uses is the projection of his desires as being the desires of Russia. Repeatedly used, this framing of words allows Putin greater control of the people of Russia, or "his" people, as he would say, as if he owned them. The frame Putin uses is reinforced when the media continually and unabashedly calls it "Russia's war" or "Russia's aggression" and even "Russia's troops." And suppose we want the war to end with fewer losses and without the threat of nuclear war. In that case, the media and individuals, too, need to refrain from incorrectly naming Putin's war.
When anyone talks about "Russia's war,” they reinforce Putin's frame that separates the people of Russia from the rest of the world. It encourages external animosity towards all Russians, even if they do not support or approve of Putin's aggressions. It promotes internal identification of 'war' as being Russian.
With incorrect labels applied to Putin's war, global isolation will grow, achieving the opposite of what is needed. The simplistic understanding will box Russians into the same camp as being 'for war,’ even if everyone knows internally that such is not the case. In this camp, those who are with little power to do much to stop the war will be treated more closely than those who support the war. In this camp, Putin will gain greater control as the understanding of what 'Russian' means is crystallized towards Putin's desire. His cultish decree that he alone is the only voice of the great country is simply false. Putin does not represent all of the great people of Russia.
When the media repeats Putin's frame, the savage leader gains more power for purely psychological reasons: many people embody their national identities as part of who they are. Even though many people of Russia do not support Putin's aggression, by naming it "Russia's War,” such terminology is gradually internalized into one where Putin's war belongs to all of those who are Russian. Putin's propaganda is repeated and emboldened by the media on an international scale.
With "Putin's war" correctly labeling the reality, it adds an essential focus on the primary element that needs to change. Putin himself. Indeed, his power is not without the support of oligarchs and brutal leaders of similarly imprisoned nations. Like all of those retaining dictatorial power, those who support him will continue to do so as long as they gain value in such support. Hence, the international sanctions against those in Putin's squad have been among the most strategically valuable at diminishing Putin's power to drive war to the death of Ukrainians and Russians.
We must describe the situation to help Ukraine and the free world survive and recover from the bloody aggression. "Putin's war" against Ukraine will be best won when we thoughtfully separate the dictatorial leader from the country he has come to control with violent means and the people he has subjugated. Russians deserve better than this. Ukrainians need better than this.