President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send Russian troops to two Russia-controlled regions in Ukraine sparked international outrage — and a debate about when an invasion is an invasion.
It’s an academic-sounding dispute that is anything but. For weeks, the U.S. and its European allies have frequently and publicly telegraphed a series of broad and punitive sanctions they would impose at the moment of a Russian invasion.
But almost immediately following Putin’s Monday speech, ambiguity intruded.
“I wouldn’t say that’s a fully fledged invasion,” said European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, “but Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil.”
President Joe Biden offered that Putin’s moves marked “the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine,” in a speech from the East Wing announcing new sanctions against Russia.
“Beginning of a Russian invasion” marked a significant evolution from what U.S. officials had been saying less than 24 hours earlier, in the wake of Putin’s announcements. Late Monday, a senior administration official told reporters that the U.S. didn’t consider what Russia had done a “new step.”
On cleanup duty, Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer waded into the discussion Tuesday. “We think this is, yes, the beginning of an invasion, Russia’s latest invasion into Ukraine,” Finer said. “I think ‘latest’ is important here,” he went on. “An invasion is an invasion, and that is what is underway, but Russia has been invading Ukraine since 2014.”
“Latest invasion”? “Further invade”? “Beginning of an invasion”? Not “fully fledged”?
It’s a semantic mashup that reflects a core reality: In calling these moves an “invasion,” leaders would be forced to react with maximum measures — potentially losing their leverage in the next phase of the crisis. A crisis that still has a chance at ending without a full-scale war.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014; it has had troops there ever since. Russian forces have been in the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, for nearly eight years. Intermittent fighting between Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces in the region has taken nearly 14,000 lives in that period.
So, a fair question: Has Putin ordered an invasion of the Luhansk and Donetsk enclaves? Or is this the reinforcing of an existing reality on the ground?
A linguistic purist might say, given that Russian forces are there, and have been there for years, “invasion” might not be the right word.
Hence, the Russian American journalist Julia Ioffe’s formulation: She tweeted that Russia had “reinvaded Ukraine.” New Zealand’s Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta called it “a calculated act by President Putin to create a pretext for invasion.” Others used strong language — but not the “I”-word: Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chose “an act of unprovoked aggression and a brazen violation of international law.”
Again, the words mattered. “Invasion” — based on past pronouncements by policymakers in the U.S. and Europe — would have been a trigger for a powerful response.
The sanctions that had been prepared by the Biden administration and its European allies in the event of a Russian invasion were wide-ranging and potentially damaging:
Sanctions against Russian state-owned banks and the country’s energy and mining sectors; tight controls on exports of U.S. technology to Russia; targeted sanctions against senior Russian oligarchs; and the banning of Russian banks from SWIFT, the communications network through which financial institutions conduct global payments and other financial transactions. As Grid’s Josh Keating reported, sanctions against Putin himself were not off the table.
In the hours after Putin’s announcement, the definitional confusion surrounding “invasion” seemed to influence the response. Far from the immediate trigger of these sanctions, the administration announced sanctions that would impact only the two Russian-backed enclaves in question. The president issued an executive order that would prevent new investment in the Luhansk and Donetsk enclaves, and shut down U.S. trade with the regions. It was a punishment that seemed to fit the misdemeanor (“new step”) rather than the grave crime (“invasion”).
On the day after, two important things happened to change the calculus — and the policy:
First, fury rained down from congressional Republicans, and some Democrats as well, as what they saw as a feeble and unclear message to Putin.
The “I-word” made a comeback.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said, “Russia has invaded Ukraine. The Biden Administration and our allies must impose [a] full set of crippling sanctions now.” From Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.): “The consequences for this invasion must be swift and I stand ready to support harsh sanctions on Putin and his officials for this attack.”
And on the other side of the aisle, Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) was no less forceful.
“If you know the history of aggressive dictators, you know it’s critical not to lose clarity. Putin is invading Ukraine. Full stop,” Himes wrote.
Meanwhile, a hard line — and the punishment to match — came from an unlikely source: Berlin.
Newly minted Prime Minister Olaf Scholz took the step that he and other German leaders had waffled on for months: the shutting down — for now — of Nord Stream 2, the pipeline owned by Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom.
Nord Stream 2 was about to go online, after an investment of more than 10 years and $11 billion. It was to be an economic juggernaut for Russia — doubling its gas exports to Germany. But it was also seen as a hugely important source of energy for Germany, which has jettisoned nuclear power and is already enduring a spike in basic energy costs. Germany had shown little inclination to play politics with the pipeline, but on Tuesday it did.
Biden: “beginning of a Russian invasion”
With pressure from Capitol Hill, and the tough stand from Germany, Biden came to the East Room Tuesday and announced a tough new set of sanctions on Russia. They were punishment, he said, for “the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
“Beginning” of an invasion.
Again, the threading of the semantic needle seemed to influence the policy. Here were a raft of strong measures — but not the full sweep. Biden and other U.S. and European officials have made the point that it is important to keep further sanctions on the table, to deter Russia from further aggression.
For now, Biden said the U.S. will block two major Russian banks from dealings with the U.S. and Europe, impose what he called “comprehensive sanctions” on Russian sovereign debt and enforce a set of punitive measures against Russian “elites.”
And while there may have been confusion as to the word “invasion,” another much-used word suggested unity on both sides of the Atlantic.
These sanctions, Biden said, were the “the first tranche of sanctions to impose costs on Russia.” In London, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Parliament that the sanctions were “the first tranche, the first barrage of what we are prepared to do.”
The “invasion”/non-“invasion” question is still out there — especially on social media (whatever the policymakers may think, #UkraineInvasion has been trending on Twitter). The debates may have given pleasure to Putin, who is known to enjoy any developments that divide his enemies.
Meanwhile, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul — now a professor at Stanford University — offered this via Twitter: “IR101 final exam question: If Country X sends soldiers and tanks into Country Y without an invitation, what’s that called?”