(noun): Russia’s euphemism for its invasion of Ukraine
When Vladimir Putin announced his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Russia’s president didn’t declare war on Kyiv. Instead, he said he had decided “to carry out a special military operation”, coining a phrase that has come to characterise Russia’s sputtering campaign.
The term was meant to assure Russians that life was largely going on as normal: it evokes far-off conflicts or swift, victorious wars such as Russia’s five-day invasion of Georgia in 2008.
But the strictness with which the Kremlin policed its use belied how quickly everything had changed. MPs rushed through a bill making “discrediting the armed forces” punishable with up to 15 years in prison.
That meant any deviation from the official narrative — including calling the war a “war” or “invasion”. Protesters have been arrested for holding up posters with the word “war” asterisked out, or clutching a copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
The term itself is key to understanding the failure of the “special operation” to deliver the lightning victory Putin had hoped for. Plans for the invasion were so secretive that even most of the Kremlin elite and Russia’s military brass were kept in the dark — leaving them unprepared for the setbacks that followed.
Nearly a year on, the Kremlin has yet to clarify how much of Ukraine Putin attempted to annex in September or what he means by Kyiv’s “denazification”. Keeping up the pretence Russia is not fighting a war has proved difficult even for Putin, who said he would “keep trying to end this war” in late December.
Instead, the “special operation” has come to characterise Putin’s existential struggle with the west, as he mobilises Russia’s reserves and muses about a nuclear first strike. For the former spy, it’s the mission of a lifetime.