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Editorial: Stop using Russia’s propaganda language to talk about its war in Ukraine

by The Kyiv Independent September 29, 2022 7:41 PM 5 min read
The Kyiv Independent/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Editorials are articles that present the opinion of the editorial team of the Kyiv Independent.

In a world polluted with disinformation and manipulations, we all bear responsibility for the words we choose to use.

Unfortunately, some global media and other actors have chosen to act irresponsibly when talking about Russia’s war in Ukraine.

On Sept. 23-27, Russia held what it dubiously calls referendums in Kremlin-occupied parts of Ukraine.

If one listens to Russia, they will hear that Ukrainians living in these territories were given a fair choice: vote for their region to secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia, or against it.

Yet if one has common sense, a pair of eyes, and memory, they would know that:

  • There were numerous reports from inside occupied territories about how the vote was conducted: Collaborators making house calls accompanied by armed Russian soldiers.
  • Staged secession referendums are a staple in the Russian invasion textbook: Russia used them in 2014 in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
  • Russia is an authoritarian state that doesn’t give its people the right to freely choose their president or government. It would be foolish to assume that Russia would suddenly respect democratic processes and hold free and fair elections in occupied territories it took by force while refusing to grant its own citizens the same basic right.
  • Even regardless of everything above, no vote organized in invaded territories by an occupying force known for extreme brutality can be considered a real vote.

This didn’t stop one of the world’s biggest news agencies, Reuters, from publishing a story headlined, “Big majority said to favor joining Russia in first vote results on future of occupied Ukraine regions.”

One would never know from this headline, or from a similar tweet that Reuters shared to its 25 million followers, that the so-called vote was a sham referendum, held at gunpoint in areas devastated by the invasion, where remaining locals are scared and powerless.

Following a backlash online, Reuters changed the headline to a somewhat better version: “Moscow's proxies in occupied Ukraine regions report big votes to join Russia.” While it doesn’t openly legitimize the referendum, it nonetheless cowardly omits pointing at its staged nature.

Reuters wasn’t the only media that made the mistake of reporting the “referendum” as the real thing. Radio France Internationale did a news story, from Moscow, that reported the results without mentioning the obvious fakeness of the referendum.

Unfortunately, these are not one-off mistakes, but rather, part of a pattern. Global media have been prone to use the language suggested to them by the Russian regime when talking about Ukraine.

The biggest, most irresponsible language mistake of this invasion was made on Feb. 24, when dozens of the most respected international media outlets reported the beginning of the full-scale invasion as the start of a “special military operation.”

“Putin announces special military operation in eastern Ukraine,” was the headline that ran on the Wall Street Journal as missiles began raining down all across Ukraine.

“Putin authorizes special military operation in Ukraine,” was the headline Reuters found appropriate.

The correct words, of course, were “war” and “invades.” Vladimir Putin, a dictator whose regime is built on lies, may choose to call it whatever he wants. But it’s our duty as media professionals to not take it at face value, not to amplify or legitimize it.

Proponents of blind journalistic objectivity may decry our attempt to set the record straight. But we believe that no rule should be applied mindlessly. A simplistic approach is to report Putin’s words as is – but are we really serving our audience’s best interests when we do so? Can anyone seriously claim that the words that come straight out of Putin’s mouth – the head of Russian aggression against Ukraine – are objective? We hardly think so.

In Ukraine, we are all too familiar with the world parroting Kremlin propaganda. We have been witnessing the world call Kremlin-led militants in eastern Ukraine “separatists” since 2014 knowing fully well there were no such “separatists” in Ukraine’s Donbas until Russia decided there should be.

“Russia makes moves to annex separatist regions in Ukraine,” said a recent headline on NPR. The “separatist regions” in it are Ukrainian territories invaded by Russia.

From occupation to active war zone: Danger persists for Ukrainians in liberated territories

The truth, based on hard facts, is simple: There are no separatists or separatist regions in Ukraine. Ukraine has never had any real secession movements until Russia staged one in early 2014 to masquerade its invasion of Ukraine.

If you don’t believe us, we implore you to do your research. The eastern Ukrainian Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, the regions making up the Donbas, voted over 80% “yes” in Ukraine’s 1991 referendum for the country’s independence from the Soviet Union. According to Ukraine’s first President Leonid Kravchuk, who told the story in the interviews, the vote prompted Russia’s Boris Yeltsin to ask: “What, even the Donbas voted yes?” Yes. Full stop.

Now Russia claims these regions have always been Russian and is trying to annex them. The Russian regime will use any lies on its malicious course to preserve its corrupt existence at the cost of disrupting the world – but we shouldn’t help it by accepting and using its deceitful language.

This is why we don’t refer to the territories occupied by Russian proxies as “breakaway republics” or by their self-proclaimed names of “Donetsk People’s Republic” or “Luhansk People’s Republic.” These are Ukrainian territories. Calling them otherwise legitimizes the pseudo-formations that are actually nothing but militant groups installed there by Russia.

This is also why we don’t call Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “the Ukraine crisis” or “the Ukraine conflict” – weak and vague terms that dilute the meaning of the events.

We abstain from using all these terms not because we aren’t objective, but because they are factually incorrect.

We refrain from using them not because we are Ukrainian journalists and have skin in the game – no, we do so because anything else would mean misinforming readers. In other words, failing at our jobs as journalists.

Since this war is fought on the information battlefield along with the real one, using the correct language that reflects reality is of utmost importance.

Reporting the results of sham referendums without pointing at their nature is tantamount to joining the fight – on Russia’s side.


Here’s a cheat sheet for filtering out the Kremlin propaganda from one’s language:

There is no Ukraine conflict or Ukraine crisis, there is Russia’s war against Ukraine.

There is no Vladimir Putin’s war, there is Russia’s war against Ukraine.

There is no Russia’s special military operation, there is Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Russia’s war against Ukraine didn’t start in 2022, it started in 2014 when Russia invaded and occupied Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbas. In 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine or an all-out war against Ukraine.

There is no Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and no Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), there are Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

There are no Ukrainian separatists, there are Russian-installed proxies/militants in occupied Ukrainian territories.

There are no pro-Russian officials (governors, mayors, prosecutors) in occupied Ukrainian territories, there are Russian-installed proxies in occupied Ukrainian territories.

There are no separatist regions in Ukraine, there are Ukrainian territories invaded and occupied by Russia.

There are no referendums and votes on joining Russia, there are sham referendums and voting at gunpoint in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories.

The mass protests following the announcement of mobilization in Russia were not anti-war protests, they were anti-mobilization protests in Russia.

We serve no one but our common values
“We truly need popular support, especially during wartime. Being not dependent on a single money bag telling journalists what to do has always been quite a task in Ukraine. In wartime, that’s even more important.”
Illia Ponomarenko, defense reporter
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