Analysis |

The Ukraine War's Ultimate Clichés, and What They Really Mean

What do politicians and pundits really mean when they say things like ‘de-escalate,’ ‘hybrid war’ and ‘miscalculation’ to describe the situation in Ukraine? Our lexicon guides you through the fog of war clichés

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Alon Pinkas
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25 buzzwords from the Ukraine-Russian war explained.
25 buzzwords from the Ukraine-Russian war explained.Credit: UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE/ REUTERS Martin Meissner, Planet Labs PBC /AP john dory, Bro Studio/Shutterstock/Anastasia Shub
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

America[’s fault]

A dumb, self-flagellating, self-defeating false sense of mea culpa that sees American blame, responsibility, culpability, arrogance and bad policy as the cause of all evil in the world. “If the U.S. hadn’t pressed for uninhibited NATO expansion and hurt Russia’s feelings...” “If the U.S. hadn’t withdrawn from Afghanistan the way it did...” “If Obama would’ve got tough when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014,” all of this could have been avoided. America caused the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, the Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic wars, World War I and World War II, so the Ukraine war goes without saying. The term is frequently used interchangeably with the whining “Why isn’t America getting more involved?”

Democracy or Putin: 'Israel must choose a side in Ukraine'

Constructive, as in ‘We had a very constructive discussion’

This invariably means there was an awful discussion, absolutely nothing was agreed and it was a total waste of time, but we are determined to do so again, soon.

De-escalate

Probably the Ukraine war’s flavor of the month and fanciest cliché. It means that we can’t reach a cease-fire or cessation of hostilities, so let’s find a sophisticated sounding term – like “de-escalate.” An alternative meaning is that it’s acceptable and tolerable to bomb, destroy and kill people, just don’t overdo it, de-escalate.

Demonstrators holding a rally in support of Ukraine, in Los Angeles on Saturday. Both sides have been quick to break Godwin's law.Credit: Damian Dovarganes/AP

Genius

A man endowed with extraordinary intellectual power, e.g., Vladimir Putin, who is a four-dimensional strategic chess grandmaster who is far smarter than the weak, feeble featherweights and confused Western leaders. Putin is usually referred to in the American and Israeli media, and by infatuated pundits, as a genius on a par with Albert Einstein, Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Jordan or Bill Belichick, all of whom also contributed to humanity like he did.

Hybrid war

A supposedly superior, advanced and innovative Russian military doctrine that blends advanced technological conventional warfare and cyberwarfare with other methods, such as broad and deep dissemination of fake news, cunning diplomacy, and foreign political and electoral intervention. In February 2022, military experts in the West were certain ‘hybrid warfare,” the doctrine of the future, would doubtless ensure a decisive Russian victory in Ukraine. By March 2022, they weren’t.

Irrational, as in ‘Putin is irrational’

A fortune cookie psychoanalytical determination that describes a pattern of behavior that we failed to predict as a form of irrationality or mental incapacitation. If he doesn’t think like us, his calculus is different than ours, he doesn’t follow our logic and we couldn’t figure him out, then by definition he must be “irrational.”

A view showing market buildings damaged by shelling, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues in Chernihiv. Talk of red lines does not include indiscriminate bombing.Credit: NATIONAL POLICE OF UKRAINE/REUTERS

Israel, as in ‘Israel is mediating’

A self-aggrandizing, lame excuse used by Israel to justify not supporting the United States and being scared of Putin. Since 70 C.E., with the exception of the American Civil War, Israel successfully intermediated and built a reputation as a savvy mediator and negotiator in times of crises and wars. Except that Putin wants to negotiate with the U.S./NATO, not with Ukraine, which he doesn’t regard as a sovereign country, or with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whom he does not regard as an equal interlocutor. So Israel, which conspicuously refrained from condemning Russia and supporting the U.S. and the West, actually believes it is uniquely positioned to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. It has deluded itself into thinking that whatever limited operational interests it has with Russia concerning the coordination of fly zones over Syria, they are somehow equivalent to its strategic alliance with the Americans.

Londongrad

Like “Moscow-on-Thames,” Londongrad historically appears in a BBC sitcom about Britain’s capital after it was annexed by the Soviet Union. In contemporary usage, it denotes a new city built by allegedly money-laundering Russian “oligarchs” (see separate entry), encompassing several posh neighborhoods like Knightsbridge, Belgravia and Chelsea, in an area that since Roman times was part of a city known as “London.”

Miscalculation

A series of flawed strategic assumptions Putin made before and during the war. Synonyms include: Blunder, debacle, errors, misjudgment, mistakes, overconfidence. Putin made four critical strategic miscalculations: underestimating U.S. resolve and misjudging NATO unity; underestimating Ukrainian preparedness, resistance and tenacity; overestimating the underperforming Russian military capabilities on both the tactical and operational levels; and misestimating the devastating effect the broad sanctions will have on Russia’s fragile economy.

NATO expansion

The geopolitical enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from 16 to 30 member countries since the dissolution of the USSR. A flimsy excuse used by Putin as a pretext to invade Ukraine, and by his apologists in the West as a sanctimonious “we told you so” explanation as to why his actions and the Ukraine war are actually America’s fault because it recklessly pushed to expand NATO. It is true that nine former Warsaw Pact countries joined NATO between 1997 and 2004, and it is also true that in 2008 Ukraine received an invitation to join at a future date. It is also possibly true that had Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania not joined NATO, they would have suffered yesterday the same fate Ukraine is enduring today.

Nazis, or de-Nazify, as in “Our aim is to de-Nazify Ukraine” (Moscow edition) or “Putin is Hitler” (Kyiv edition)

The use of “Nazi” frames the crisis in terms of ultimate and unparalleled evil and carnage. One side, Russia, uses “Nazi” as part of a narrative of the ongoing Russian struggle against anti-Russian, murderous Nazism. And the other, Ukraine, uses it as a reference to Putin as the quintessential evil incarnate. In this respect, this is the first “Godwin’s law” war in history – meaning the longer the discussion, the more likely a Nazi comparison becomes inevitable.

A protester holding a sign with pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, during an anti-war demonstration in Hamburg, Germany, on Sunday.Credit: FABIAN BIMMER/REUTERS

Neither confirm nor deny

Full, unequivocal confirmation of whatever was inquired.

Oligarch(s)

Contrary to the widely held belief in Israel, Oligarchy is not a republic in the former Soviet Union where smart, entrepreneurial, hard-working, wealthy Jews live and come from. In Greek, oligoi is “the few” and arkhein is “to rule” – ergo, an oligarchy is a government in which a small group exercises control, especially for corrupt and selfish purposes. Monarchy, plutocracy and kleptocracy are all oligarchies. The Russian oligarchs are the tip of Russia’s financial elite, consisting of several dozens individuals who have surrounded Putin. They are his (dwindling) main support group and used to be his comfort zone.

Options, as in ‘All options are available to us’

They most certainly are not. We haven’t figured out exactly what they are, but we’d like to keep you guessing and maybe anxious.

Red line, as in ‘If they do X, it would constitute a red line for us and there will be Y repercussions’

A usually hollow threat that is rarely taken very seriously by either the threatening or the threatened. It is meant to exhibit exasperation, toughness, resolve and high moral standing. “If they kill 10,000 people with rockets, it’s unfortunate, horrific and tragic – but it’s a war, what can you do? But if they dare use chemical weapons and kill 5,000 people, it’s a red line and we will respond.” Or not.

The motor yacht "Solaris," linked to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, is seen in the waters of Porto Montenegro in Tivat, Montenegro, last week.Credit: STEVO VASILJEVIC/REUTERS

Reassessment

An acknowledgment that a policy failed, is outdated or is no longer relevant. Since we don’t know what the new policy should be, we are “reassessing.”

Russia

A vast, hostile, misunderstood wasteland in Eurasia that has annoyed America since 1917, but is admired and beloved in the Palm Beach-Mar-a-Lago area and in certain neighborhoods of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

Russian military doctrine, as in ‘Modern Russian military doctrine is so advanced, sophisticated and ingenious that we should expect Ukraine to succumb within 72 hours’

This is a form of supernatural military thinking, regarded with religious reverence, awe and fascination among the few in the West who claim they understand it.

Sleepy Joe

An archaic, irrelevant and derogatory term applied to U.S. President Joe Biden by Trump-loving, Putin-admiring Republicans, before he masterminded arguably the greatest U.S. foreign policy campaign in many decades. If “Sleepy Joe” means resuscitating NATO, strengthening alliances, outmaneuvering and outperforming Putin on all levels, and imposing the most devastating sanctions ever on Russia, imagine what “Woke Joe” means.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaking in the White House last Friday. Just imagine what "Woke Joe" might do. Credit: Patrick Semansky/AP

Stability, or ‘destabilizing’

A condition or set of predictable tenets and rules that serve our interests, and therefore ensure stability. Who doesn’t love stability? When someone else challenges the structure and status quo, they are “destabilizing.”

Table, as in ‘All options are on the table’

A huge piece of furniture consisting of a smooth flat slab fixed on legs, used to hold on its top tons of half-baked ideas and partial policy alternatives we will most likely never use, but believe it somehow serves deterrence by instilling fear and uncertainty on the other side.

Territorial integrity, as in ‘We call to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine’

Short of condemning an abject act of war and aggression, this is used to denounce an infringement on sovereignty and borders. In other words, “We can’t have you doing what we did for centuries.”

Ukraine

Apparently a country – unless you’re Vladimir Putin – somewhere in Europe, possibly close to Russia, and known to urbane Americans as being “almost the size of Texas.” It was popularized in the United States in January 1995 during season 6, episode 12, of “Seinfeld,” when Cosmo Kramer famously said to Newman: “You know what the Ukraine is? It’s a sitting duck. A road apple, Newman. The Ukraine is weak. It’s feeble. I think it’s time to put the hurt on the Ukraine.” The country was forgotten by most Americans for 27 years, until January 2022.

West, as in ‘The West is weak’

A prevalent predisposition according to which “the West” is decadent, spoiled, appeasement-prone, no longer led by a declining America and will therefore succumb to Putin’s superior intellect and astute, cunning statesmanship, and sacrifice whatever is needed to avert conflict.

World War III

The sum of all fears, the ultimate hysteria scenario, the end of civilization. Another multinational conflict in Europe can by definition evolve into a “world war.” Russia has a nuclear arsenal of 6,000 warheads, as does NATO (the U.S., Britain and France). So when Russia initiates a crisis and a military invasion that is designed to challenge and reshape Europe’s security architecture, teases NATO members (the Baltic states and Poland), threatens neighboring Moldova and Georgia, suffers significant setbacks in its military operation in Ukraine and puts its nuclear forces on high alert, the idea that we can be on the verge of World War III gains traction and legitimacy.

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