The Need for Plain Language or Stop Calling Them Separatists

“On his third visit to Ukraine, gripped now by fresh and deadly clashes with Russian-backed separatists, Prime Minister Stephen Harper” … And so on. We would like to ask Mr. Terry Milewski, CBC-TV’s senior correspondent in Ottawa, why on Earth he called the army, which is fighting with the Ukrainian military in the Donbas “Russian-backed separatists”, in his piece “Harper kicks off pre-election trip to Europe with harsh words for Vladimir Putin” published on cbc.ca last Saturday?

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin once said that it is not easy for Ukraine to accept a defeat from former tractor drivers and coal miners turned armed separatists. He must have meant that among yesterday’s farmers and miners of the Donbas there are so many talented military commanders of the levels from general to colonel who were able to lead an about 40,000-strong force armed with tanks, large-caliber guns, missile systems and state-of-the-art electronic warfare complexes. This force stopped the successful offensive of the Ukrainian army in August 2014 and beat it in March 2015. It’s not even a question where they got that enormous pile of weapons. The Donbas, Mr. Putin implies, is a unique region on the face of this planet, where talented high-ranking army commanders are concentrated in big numbers and had had to resort to lowly jobs for a long time, only to form and arm an army to fight Ukraine at some point.

Oddly, Mr. Milewsky seems to share this extravagant view. Together with hordes of international journalists who have been talking about separatists for more than a year now. But this is obviously a load of nonsense. No one can form an army from scratch in a couple of months and lead it to beat a regular force. Without a doubt, there are, at the very least, active duty Russian commanders in the Donbas which are leading this big and sophisticated war machine that has been gradually winning more and more ground from Ukraine. And if it has active duty Russian commanders, is it a “separatist force”? Needless to ask.

Some high-flying journalists could probably school us on standards of journalism, that everything should be triple checked and backed up by the reliable parties, for instance, to prove that there actually are active duty Russian soldiers or officers in Ukraine. Like Armen Harutyunyan, head of the U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, put it, “It is very difficult to prove whether they are servicemen or not. That is why mostly we are speaking about ‘fighters’ of the Russian federation.” But we are just curious, do the western journalists, who are talking about “separatists”, actually have the triple-checked information which is backed up by the reliable parties, that there are Ukrainian citizens who raised their arms against their country and became separatists? Most Western media do not even have journalists on the ground and are using third-party reports.

We are not implying there are no locals fighting against the Ukrainian army in the Donbas. Different Ukrainian estimates of their share in the total number of the opposing force range in the area of 40%-60%. Yes, it is too much. Yes, it means that the war is backed by a large share of the local population. Yes, this share probably reaches (or maybe even exceeds) 50% of the current local population. It could also be true that currently much more than 50% of the locals hate the DPR and LPR. We don’t know the exact numbers, no one does opinion polls under heavy artillery fire.

But that all doesn’t matter. This war was initiated by Russian special forces, Russia has moved its military units in the Donbas and also formed units comprising of locals and Russian volunteers. In every war, there are local collaborators which serve in the occupying force. This is not a reason to call it a civil war with separatists. We call on the Canadian and other international journalists: stop calling the force, which is killing Ukrainians in the Donbas, “Russian-backed separatists”. Call a spade a spade, and the Russian army, the Russian army.

When we were going into print, two prominent world leaders did just that. Canada’s Prime Minister Steven Harper, on his way to the G7 Summit in Germany said that Russian denials of involvement in Ukraine are not credible: “This is kind of typical Russian foreign policy to just say black is white, even though everyone knows the contrary.” And the U.S. President Barak Obama during the summit said that “Russian forces continue to operate in eastern Ukraine, violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Hopefully, international journalists will follow the suit in choosing plain language.