Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky found fault with the terminology used by Speaker Anġlu Farrugia to describe the situation in his homeland.

“We don’t have a conflict, we have a war,” Zelensky told Farrugia after the latter used the word ‘conflict’ to describe the situation in Ukraine.

What started as a conflict between two countries – whereby one, Russia, claiming sovereign rights over parts of Ukraine, invaded the latter – developed into a fully-fledged war. Farrugia and Zelensky are both right.

It was more of an understandable, emotional ‘outburst’ by Zelensky – and not the first time too. Months ago, an internal United Nations e-mail advised staff to refer to the invasion as a conflict. Zelensky objected. He insisted that the ‘conflict’ is indeed a war.

There are numerous cases of conflicts which developed into a fully-fledged war. War is usually a long-lasting, armed conflict between countries.

Lassa Oppenheim defined war as “a contention between two or more states, through their armed forces, for the purposes of overpowering each other and imposing such conditions of peace as the victor pleases” (source: The British Manual of Military War).

In December 2020, a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated. It was an ethnic and territorial conflict between the two countries over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Previous to that, in 1988, the Karabakh Armenians demanded that Karabakh be transferred from Soviet Azerbaijan to Soviet Armenia. In 1990, the conflict escalated into a war. Now ‘resolved’, it is often referred to as the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis.

The dispute over Kashmir between Pakistan and India is another well-known conflict which has led to three wars between the two countries. The Israel-Palestine conflict has been dragging for over five decades with Israel on one side and Arab states on the other side.

The events taking place in Ukraine are generalised by the terms ‘war’, ‘crisis’, ‘conflict’, ‘aggression’ and ‘invasion’.

These nouns are used interchangeably even though they differ in meaning.

For example, invasion is when the armed forces of one entity enter territory controlled by another while aggression is when an entity – be it a country or a group – initiates an aggression towards another.

However, all terms, when referring to the Russia-Ukraine situation, are correct.

Bottom line: the Russian-Ukraine crisis escalated into a war, whereby Russia invaded Ukraine, claiming territorial rights. It was an aggression by a country against its neighbour, which resulted into a deep humanitarian crisis.

There are numerous cases of conflicts which developed into a fully-fledged war- Frank Psaila

When the US took action against Islamic State militants in Syria, it was referred to as a ‘military operation’. Shortly after former US president Barack Obama’s decision to target the militants, CNN had asked then secretary of state John F. Kerry whether the United States was at war with the Islamic State.

That was the “wrong terminology”, Kerry replied. “What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counter- terrorism operation.” Three days later, on CBS’s Face the Nation, Kerry called such semantic debates “a waste of time”. However, he also said: “If people need a place to land, yes, we’re at war with ISIL” (source: The Washington Post)

The Kremlin insists and orders the country’s media outlets not to refer to Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a war or an invasion but as a ‘special operation’.

Does the debate over whether to call the Russia-Ukraine situation a conflict or a war really matter?

Surely not to any of the relatives whose loved ones have been killed by Russian bombs.

Surely not to any of the millions of Ukrainians who have had to flee their country.

Surely not to any of the relatives of the Russian soldiers who have been posted to Ukraine, on orders by the Kremlin, and who will return to Moscow in body bags.

This semantic or political debate cannot matter to them.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is deplorable and absolutely condemnable. 

Farrugia and Zelensky are on the same page.

Frank Psaila, Lawyer specialising in international relations

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