The Russian president has, for the most part, sidestepped describing the conflict as a “war” – apart from when he was speaking directly to the media and military bloggers on June 13.
He used the word “war” not just once, but several times while warning the West that Russia may impose a “sanitary zone” in Ukraine to protect itself against attacks to Russia, according to Reuters news agency.
This is especially noteworthy because it actually goes against propaganda laws in Russia which prohibit anyone from describing the Ukraine conflict as a war.
Where did phrase ‘special military operation’ came from?
When he declared Russia would be invading Ukraine in February 2022, Putin said this “special military operation” would be aimed at “demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine”.
The rest of the world quickly recognised what it was: a declaration of war.
It was widely thought that Putin was trying to avoid mobilising the general public for battle by describing his invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation” – – so the brutality of the battlefield would remain far away from the lives of the regular Russians.
A “special military operation” also suggested that it would be an easily won offensive, needing just specialised soldiers.
He also claimed Russia was acting defensively against the expansion of NATO and made the baseless allegation that Kyiv needed liberating from the “Nazis” running the government.
Spreading such “false information” could result in 15 years behind bars.
Fast-forward a year and a half, and Russia is allegedly worrying that Ukraine could launch an assault on Crimea, which Moscow has occupied since 2014.
Is this the first time Putin has said ‘war’?
No – Putin did say in a televised news conference from December 2022: “Our goal is not to spin this flywheel of a military conflict, but, on the contrary, to end this war. This is what we are striving for.”
It seemed to be an acknowledgement that the war would not be short after all – something he still blamed the West for.
Allies of those punished for calling the war a war were quick to call out the president, noting that no war had actually been declared, and that Putin himself should be charged with spreading fake news.
It also came months after he ordered the partial mobilisation of the Russian reservists – meaning the war was actually started to encroach on the lives of ordinary Russians after all.
But, Putin appears not to have used the word in public again for months, up until this meeting with the press in June.
Why was it especially significant at the meeting?
The Russian president didn’t just let the word slip once but multiple times, according to Reuters news agency.
Still, he tried to calm worries about the impact on the public by also saying Russia had no need for nationwide martial law and would just keep responding to breaches of its red lines.
The same meeting, where representatives of the Russian media were also present, indicated several other things too, according to a specialist, Mark Galeotti.
He also suggested it indicated that unofficial, online commentators were now just as powerful as the state-controlled media – and they could not be controlled as easily.
He suggested: “The 70-year-old Putin’s efforts to be chummy with the young [bloggers] not only failed to land, but very much made it seem that he needed them rather than vice versa.”
In fact, the Institute for the Study of War said throughout the whole meeting, “Putin aimed to assuage widespread discontent in the Russian information space.” This could explain why he was willing to describe the conflict as a “war” instead.
Russian-language newspaper The Moscow Times also covered the meeting with the snappy headline: “The king is naked!”