Ukrainian MPs passed a bill on 18 January that rebrands the conflict in the east of the country and defines it legally as a struggle against Russian aggression. Since the start of military operations in April 2014, Ukraine has officially referred to the conflict as an Anti-Terrorist Operation, or ATO for short. The new legislation now classifies the ATO zone in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts as “temporarily occupied territories”, while the Russian Federation is designated as the “aggressor state”.
This change in terminology is part of a broader reintegration bill backed by a clear majority of 280 Ukrainian parliamentarians in mid-January following months of debate marked by multiple amendments and occasional protest violence. As the name suggests, the bill aims to create a framework for the future reintegration of the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine while sending a clear political message that Ukraine has not abandoned these regions to the Kremlin. Supporters of the new wording also see it as long overdue acknowledgement of the realities on the ground in the warzone itself, where the conflict is widely recognized as a confrontation with Russian hybrid forces.
Moscow responded furiously to the Ukrainian parliament’s vote. In an official statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry branded the move as “preparation for a new war,” and warned that it could lead to “dangerous escalation in Ukraine with unpredictable consequences for world peace and security.” Moscow has consistently denied any direct role in the east Ukraine fighting, claiming instead that the conflict is an internal issue between rival Ukrainian forces. This Russian narrative of blanket denial has gained little traction among outside audiences and been subject to considerable ridicule, but it remains legally significant internationally and carries considerable political importance inside Russia itself, where relatively few would welcome revelations of a large-scale military campaign in neighboring Ukraine.
Nevertheless, evidence of direct Russian involvement has been mounting steadily since the outbreak of hostilities in spring 2014 and includes numerous instances of Russian soldiers captured in the conflict zone along with the widespread presence of Russian military technologies among so-called separatist military formations. Although Russia prevents the OSCE Monitoring Mission from observing the bulk of the Russia-Ukraine border, OSCE observers have nevertheless managed to record tens of thousands of young men in military-style clothing crossing from Russia into Ukraine at the few crossings they have been able to access. Meanwhile, hacked Kremlin emails have shed light on Moscow’s direct control over the everyday affairs of the so-called separatist republics, ranging from the appointment of administrators to handling of relations with the international media.
The newly adopted reintegration bill will likely strengthen Ukraine’s legal position in the international courts, where Kyiv is pursuing multi-billion dollar claims against Moscow for losses caused by the occupation of Crimea and the Donbas. There are also hopes that the legal designation of eastern Ukraine as Russian-occupied territory will make an impression on the language used in international media reports about the conflict. Moscow-based correspondents have dominated coverage of the war in Ukraine and have generally tended to avoid language that emphasizes Russia’s role in the fighting. Many international reporters have characterized the conflict as a civil war, while others have referred to the Kremlin-controlled forces in eastern Ukraine as “pro-Russian separatists”, or published Ukrainian accusations of Russian involvement while giving equal weight to Kremlin denials.
Critics of this coverage claim it has helped to enable Russian aggression by creating the plausible deniability that is central to hybrid war operations. With Ukraine itself now legally acknowledging the reality of the country’s partial Russian occupation, the expectation is that this language will start to creep into reportage of the ongoing conflict and make an impact on international opinion.