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The War Which Must Not Be Named

Editor's Dispatch

The War Which Must Not Be Named
 Blanche Leridon
Executive Director, Editorial and Resident Fellow - Democracy and Governance

It’s now been three months since war broke out in Ukraine; three months since the world has been embarrassed and daunted by that word, "war", when it’s not whispered or entirely silenced.

Silenced by Russia, of course, where its use is now punishable by 15 years of prison. In his May 9th speech on the Red Square, an unexpected address analyzed by Michel Duclos, the Russian leader utters the word "war" seven times, and not once in reference to the situation in Ukraine. The 150,000 troops deployed in the Donbas and the rest of the country are peacekeepers, intervening in a "special military operation". To acknowledge the war would mean to risk losing it, too.

This is a war that the West and NATO allies will only speak of to further distance themselves from it, to avoid, at all costs, implicating themselves as co-belligerents, even as we still struggle to define what the legal implications, real or anticipated, of such a status would be. When French Minister of the Economy and Finances Bruno Le Maire alludes to a "total economic and financial war" with Russia, he is immediately called to order: "We are not in conflict with the Russian people", he insists in a press release the next day, all despite the fact that the economic impact of sanctions, which Éric Chaney details for Institut Montaigne, seem to prove him right.

If the word frightens us so, it’s because we’d stopped believing that war could come to Europe years ago.

Instead, all that remained in our path was "hybrid war", a more distant and less brutal threat. And yet, the scene unfurling before our eyes today sure looks a lot like what we’d relegated to our history books and the tens of thousands of military supplies that transit to Ukraine daily can only serve to prove it.


Russian allies, historical and opportunistic, don’t bother to use this ugly language either. In our China Trends issue dedicated to the war in Ukraine, as seen from China, Viviana Zhu  and François Godement sketch the Chinese diplomatic narrative that minimized the scale of Russia’s offense in the early days. But they also lay out how, as time went on, euphemisms like the "situation" and the "crisis" were soon to be replaced with the drama of the "abyss" or the "tragedy" that Ukraine is descending into. The non-Western perspectives of the war in Ukraine, or whatever else they might call it, will be the focus of our next series.

But amidst the silence, there is one war that echoes through the world: World War II. Reframed to suit their interests, the Russians call on the memory of this great patriotic victory (Putin did so seven times in the aforementioned speech), as explained by Dominique Moïsi. This very same war which, in the words of the Ukrainian president, should serve as a reminder of the immense loss suffered throughout Europe, a tragedy that’s whipping back towards the present like a boomerang.

Indeed, only the Ukrainians speak of the war. As if they’d entered it alone, in a unilateral conflict, against their own. Such is the narrative peddled by Putin and Russia: a country plagued with internal division, Nazism and barbarian violence, wrestling with its own ghosts. All the while, endless debates about semantics reach a fever pitch.

Indeed, only the Ukrainians speak of the war. As if they’d entered it alone, in a unilateral conflict, against their own.

If this isn’t a war and there are no co-belligerents, might we then speak of genocide or crimes against humanity? In the maze of wordplay, Julia Grignon offers an escape route. When asked about the role of international law in this conflict, she warns us that before invoking any legal jargon, it is our duty to denounce these events as unspeakable horrors.

But speak them we must. If there is no war to speak of, how will we call for peace? This too should come as a surprise, that in the West where no one wants to call it war, few are calling for peace. In Germany, philosopher Jürgen Habermas sounded the alarm for a Third World War in the pages of the Süddeutsche Zeitung but few have heeded his calls. And if anti-war voices are making ripples in Germany and Italy, we can hardly speak of a pacifist wave. Who will call for peace without asking for war? Seek resolution without sending ammunition? With no end in sight, it’s time to dust off the name of war from the archives of the past and usher it back into consciousness of the present.

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