For those who are new to the subject — indeed, for those who have been following it for many years — the Ukrainian crisis can seem murky. The Ukrainians have a president, Viktor Yanukovych, who granted himself dictatorial powers and then repealed some of them; announced a truce and then broke it; claims to enforce the law but employs thugs who haul journalists out of cars and shoot them. The Ukrainian opposition, meanwhile, has three separate leaders who may or may not actually control the Ukrainian protest movement at any given moment.
The opacity helps to explain why Ukraine, after years of stability, has suddenly become violent and unpredictable. It also helps to explain why so many inside and outside the country use historical cliches to describe the situation. Often, those cliches are intended to serve the interests of those who use them. Sometimes they are just bad simplifications. Either way, what follows is a handy guide to the terms, words and phrases to treat with deep skepticism:
Fraternal assistance — This is a Soviet expression, once used to justify the Soviet invasions of Prague in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979. “Fraternal assistance” was intended to prevent Soviet puppet states from being overthrown, whether violently or peacefully. In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Ukraine a “fraternal” country, hinting that he sees it as a puppet state. This week, a senior Russian parliamentarian declared that he and his colleagues are “prepared to give all the necessary assistance should the fraternal Ukrainian people ask for it.” This may well be the cue for pro-Russian organizations inside Ukraine to ask for intervention.
Anti-terrorist operation — This is a Putin-era expression, used to justify the Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1999. An “anti-terrorist operation,” in this particular context, means that anything is permitted: The term granted Russian soldiers carte blanche to destroy Grozny, the Chechen capital. This is why so many reacted with horror earlier this week when the Ukrainian defense ministry warned that the army “might be used in anti-terrorist operations on the territory of Ukraine.”
Coup d’etat — This more universal expression has been used since November by both the Ukrainian government and Russian commentators to describe street protests in Kiev and elsewhere. It can mean anything from “peaceful protests that we don’t like” to “protesters using violence against police,” but either way, it is a term being used to justify the deployment of an “anti-terrorist operation,” and not necessarily to describe an actual coup d’etat.
Nazi or fascist — These loaded historical terms have been used by both Russian and Ukrainian officials for many months to describe a wide range of opposition leaders and groups. Fake photographs of nonexistent Hitler posters in Kiev have been circulating online; recently the Russian foreign minister lectured his German colleagues for, he said, supporting people who salute Hitler. Of course there is a Ukrainian far right, though it is much smaller than the far right in France, Austria or Holland, and its members have indeed become more violent under the pressure of police clubs, bullets and attacks.
At the same time, those who throw these terms around should remember that the strongest anti-Semitic, homophobic and xenophobic rhetoric in this region is not coming from the Ukrainian far right but from the Russian press, and ultimately the Russian regime. As historian Tim Snyder has written, “the Ukrainian government is telling itself that its opponents are Jews and us that its opponents are Nazis.” The smears stick. Romano Prodi, the former president of the European Commission, just wrote an otherwise anodyne article ticking off Ukrainian “far-right nationalist groups” as if they were the main problem, proving that even Western statesmen aren’t immune.
Ethno-linguistic divisions or Yugoslav situation — These are more loaded terms, used in both the West and Russia to show that the conflict in Ukraine is atavistic, inexplicable, born of deep ethnic hatred. In fact, this is not an ethnic conflict at all. It is a political conflict and — despite the current opacity — at base not that hard to understand. It pits Ukrainians (both Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking) who want to live in a “European” democracy with human rights and the rule of law, against Ukrainians (also both Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking) — who support an undemocratic, oligarchic capitalist regime that is politically and economically dependent on Russia. Some of the regime’s supporters may well believe they are fighting fascists and militant European homosexuals; others may simply fear that deep reforms will cost them their paychecks.
Either way, this is not a fight over which language to speak or which church to attend. It is a deep, fundamental disagreement about the nature of the state, the country’s international allegiances, its legal system, its economy, its future. Given how much Ukrainians have at stake, the least we outsiders can do is avoid foolish stereotypes when discussing their fate.