Why Accepting russia’s Terminology Wouldn’t Help Resolve the russia-Ukraine Сonflict

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Five years after Euromaidan and the “russian spring” in Ukraine, russian narratives about the “civil war in Ukraine” have become salient in the media again, writes Tymofii Brik for VoxUkraine.

On February 12, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held a meeting called by russia to discuss the progress of the Minsk Agreements. The meeting was dedicated to the fourth anniversary of the Minsk Agreements, although the Ukrainian side argued that the real purpose to call it was to distract attention from the forthcoming UNSC gathering on February 20, devoted to the t sad anniversary – five years of the conflict in Ukraine. In the course of this meeting, the Permanent Representative of Germany Christoph Heusgen criticized russia for its intervention to Ukraine and violation of international law.

A short version of this text was published on PONARS Eurasia. PONARS is not responsible for any changes in this current extended version of the text. Any errors, textual or conceptual, belong to authors of this text. We are grateful to PONARS Eurasia for publishing the short memo and we hope to engage international and local researchers in a discussion about narratives of conflict and reconciliation.

Although there is a consensus among international organizations that the conflict in Ukraine is both international and non-international (see more details about this terminology in the text below), some intellectuals and researchers keep falling for the russian narratives of “the civil war in Ukraine”. For example, a respectful political scientist Jesse Driscoll published his policy memo on the website of PONARS Eurasia where he argues that we should consider accepting the terminology of “civil war” for Ukraine.

In Driscoll’s view, calling the conflict in Ukraine a civil war should be a prerequisite for free and fair elections in the Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk regions) and the ultimate implementation of the Minsk Agreements.

Jesse Driscoll is an associate professor of political science and serves as chair of the Global Leadership Institute at the School. His book “Warlords and Coalition Politics in Post-Soviet States” is focused on conflicts in Georgia and Tajikistan.

We believe that the arguments presented in his memo are detached from empirical reality and thus extremely harmful for both peace-building in Ukraine and sustainable international relationships in the region.

PONARS Eurasia is an influential network of over 125 academics, mainly from North America and post-Soviet Eurasia who study post-Soviet politics and economics. The PONARS website publishes memos, blogs, and discussions dedicated to most pressing issues in the region.

What are the arguments

#1. Commitment problem

The main argument presented by Jesse Driscoll is that the Ukrainian government faces the so-called commitment problem. In simple words, if we believe that the war in Donbas is invasion or occupation by a foreign enemy, then we expect that most of political problems in Donbas will be resolved if the foreign soldiers went home. This idea implies that the Ukrainian government is not willing to take responsibility for political re-integration of Donbas region. This lack of motivation is called commitment problem. Jesse Driscoll suggests that we can design a policy to incentivize the Ukrainian government to take more responsibility. This policy starts with accepting the terminology of “civil war”. By doing so, the Ukrainian government will fully recognize its own responsibility for all citizens who were fighting on both sides.


Unfortunately, Driscoll does not present any evidence to support that Kyiv lacks integration incentives. One has to understand that the “commitment problem” (or dilemma) is a theoretical framework. There is no shortage of such dilemmas in social science (such as the “prisoners’ dilemma” or “tragedy of the commons”). These dilemmas do not have to be tested empirically by going to a real jail and talking to real prisoners. They are theoretical models that illustrate mechanisms of individual and/or collective behavior. However, things change when we draw policies. Policies require context. Is there any empirical evidence that Ukraine is incentivized to re-integrate Donbas? Plenty! For example:

  1. The speeches of all major politicians show that they all recognize the issue of peace and re-integration of Donbas as significant.[1] While they disagree on how to solve the issue, they all agree that the issue is important.
  2. survey among members of nine political parties in the parliament showed that none of them (even the opposition) agree with the term “civil war.”[2] These politicians offered a pallet of opinions on how the Donbas should be reintegrated (some of them were quite harsh, like temporarily denying people their voting rights), but there was no lack of commitment.
  3. Representative surveys show that most Ukrainians agree that compromise is the best solution for peace.[3] Moreover, similar results can be seen in qualitative interviews.[4] Drawing on these interviews, Ukrainian researchers argue that Donbas should be reintegrated by the Ukrainian government using “soft power.” This kind of opinion displayed by the public and experts create a certain pressure on politicians. All in all, Ukraine has shown lots of signals that regular people and political elites are committed to reintegration.

#2. Commitment to whom? “The russians” in Ukraine

The second part of the argument is tricky. As many before him, Driscoll tries to say something about the russian population of Ukraine. Unfortunately, he does not provide any clear definition of this group. Although he is not talking about ethnic russians, Driscoll still brings in ethnic-related comparisons to other parts of the text, such as ethnic quotas in Bosnia. Essentially, he talks about people who are either “russian-speaking” or “who see themselves as russians.” He also emphasizes that they were exposed to the war, “carry the personal scars,” and “are going to reside in territorial Ukraine.” Most importantly, he applies the word “multi-million to this vague group of people. Is this approximation correct?


  1. According to the 2001 census, there were about 2.8 million people who reported their nationality as russians in the Donbas, which was about 38 percent of the then-Donbas population. There were many russians in cities there that are now under the control of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), but no more than 45 percent of the population.
  2. The 2001 census shows that those who reported their nationality as russian mostly used russian as their language. At the same time, quite a lot of ethnic Ukrainians speak russian in Donbas (see maps here by datatowel.in.ua based on the 2001-census data). Therefore, one has to be very careful when making claims about the russian-speaking population—not all russian-speaking people are ethnic russians. As we argue next, an even greater mistake would be to attribute some pro-russian agenda to all of russian speakers or ethnic russians.
  3. Survey data from the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Science of Ukraine show that in 2014, on the eve of the war, about 30 percent of respondents in the Donbas called themselves russians. With some reverse calculations, 30 percent in 2014 was about 1.9-2.0 million people. How many of them, as written in the memo, “are already home and are going to reside in territorial Ukraine after the guns go quiet”? It would be safe to assume that a considerable number of them moved to russia and Ukrainian-government-controlled areas. According to the most recent data from the Ministry of Social Policy (February 4, 2019), there are 1,358,020 registered IDPs from Donbas and Crimea in the government-controlled areas of Ukraine. This number includes both Donbas and Crimea and is only a weak approximation of how many people moved from the Donbas. Yet, some of them moved. There are also people who did not register at their new destinations and there are people who moved to russia. It is also reasonable to assume that those who moved included self-identified russians.
  4. When it comes to considering the political attitudes of these people, according to KIIS, in 2014 only about 30 percent of self-identified russians who lived in Donbas wanted to join russia. Again, self-identified russians are not homogeneous in their views and many of them actually support the Ukrainian government.

Playing devil’s advocate, we could suggest another way to measure “russians.” For example, we can argue that some Ukrainians could be collapsed into one group of “russians” if they share certain pro-russian or anti-Ukrainian attitudes and narratives. However, such people lived in other regions of Ukraine as well (March 3, 2015, KIIS). In other words, this constructivist theory does not help us to identify the specific political grievances and demands of the people in Donbas.

All in all, it would be reasonable to say that the real number of self-identified russians who stayed in the Donbas must be considerably lower than 1.9 million. Moreover, many of them actually support the Ukrainian government. Therefore, we believe that the wording “the multi-million…population” is a serious manipulation that cannot serve any good. Of course, any number is important. 10 thousand, 100 thousand, or 1 million – regarding the real number these are a lot of people. And these people deserve dignity, safety, and political freedoms as any other human being. However, Jesse Driscoll avoids talking about numbers and sources of data at all. He presents the central argument of his memo without clear definitions and with significant numerical overstatement. This makes his speech more appealing and convincing to some people, but less attached to the empirical reality. The idea to justify the commitment problem by including “the russian” population is based on manipulation. Wrong numbers are the basis for ill-functioning policies and institutions, and should be condemned by academics and researchers.

Ukraine’s “Type 4” Conflict – Not a “Civil War”

In order to justify his application of the term “civil war,” Driscoll refers to an independent academic opinion. However, some fact-checking reveals another picture. He states: “The language of civil war meets the face validity standard for academics, as evidenced by the fact that the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) codes the Ukraine conflict as a civil war.”

First, he did not provide a link to the source. Second, he misstated the name of the source. He most likely meant to write “UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset” (Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) at Uppsala University; link 1link 2Link 3). The dataset is a joint effort by more than one institution, therefore it is difficult to infer whom is Driscoll citing exactly. Most crucially, there is no phrase “civil war” in the dataset. In fact, the dataset codes the conflict in Ukraine as “Type 4,” which covers situations in which “Internationalized internal armed conflict occurs between the government of a state and one or more internal opposition group(s) with intervention from other states (secondary parties) on one or both sides.”

The definition above does not include the word “civil war,” yet one still could argue that this definition describes civil wars in some generic way. Nevertheless, such an argument reminds to be interpretation. If Driscoll believes that “Type 4” is about civil wars, he should lay claim to that rather than saying that PRIO claims it while merely citing the organization.

Additional Areas of Concern

Was there an issue of terminology in the first place?

Driscoll says that “invasion and civil war are not mutually exclusive terms in academic parlance.” If academics are wise enough to see that, why can’t policymakers? The answer is that they can, and they have been doing so for a long time. The problem of terminology does not exist in the first place. Major international organizations, in fact, recognize that Ukraine is exposed to both internal and external conflict.

For example the International Criminal Court writes that Ukraine is going through “a non-international armed conflict” (paragraph 168) and “an international armed conflict… in parallel to the non-international armed conflict” (paragraph 169). In the same vein, the Rule of Law in Armed Conflict Project (RULAC, an initiative of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights) states that “…in addition to the non-international armed conflicts between the rebels and the government, there appears to be a parallel international armed conflict between Ukraine and russia.”

In other words, there is a considerable consensus among legal experts that the conflict includes both inside and outside forces. Usually academics spend a lot of time justifying a problem (in terms of academic and social relevance), and only then they start working on a solution. Driscoll used an opposite approach. He proposed a solution to a problem forgetting to justify the existence of the problem in the first place.

Playing devil’s advocate for the second time, Driscoll could argue that the Ukrainian people are the ones who could or should change their attitudes about the terminology of “civil war.” However, such an argument can be debunked as well. As we stated above, the Ukrainian people (and politicians) are aware of the complex nature of the conflict. Moreover, major Ukrainian think-tanks and pollsters use the language “russia and separatists” when performing surveys. When asked, as shown by a February 2018 KIIS-Detector Media poll, a majority of Ukrainians (52 percent) believe that the war was initiated by “russia and separatists.”[5]

It seems that the language used by international institutions and Ukrainians (in the public sphere) reflects the complexity of the conflict. It seems that the issue of language and terminology did not exist in the first place.

Is It All Hypothetical? No

Dealing in hypotheticals, Driscoll proposes we consider what would happen if the russian soldiers went home. In fact, this had already happened. A good example is the case of the city of Sloviansk, which was seized by russia-backed troops, and then was retaken by Ukrainian forces. The city’s citizens returned to normal life. In 2015, after local elections, 36 new deputies were elected—granted, few people showed up to cast votes (28 percent turnout)—but 22 of the elected deputies (60 percent) were from the “Opposition block” party. This party is, first, in opposition to the government and, second, popular among those who vote for, as Driscoll writes, “an entity that no longer exists (Party of Regions).” Thus, there is no evidence that either this party or its electorate is under oppression. Moreover, there is no evidence of an extreme commitment problem on behalf of the Ukrainian government that prevents peace building.

Pros and Cons?

I believe that any policy suggestion should be evaluated carefully using an approach involving “pros and cons,” “a costs and benefits analysis,” or a “SWOT analysis.” Unfortunately, Driscoll avoids such complex analyses. He does not talk about the possible negative consequences of using the terminology of “civil war,” for example, that doing so would allow russia to get away with international crimes.


Driscoll frames his argument as a long-term solution. Thus, his critics are framed as shortsighted. Although he claims that russia is responsible for the aggression and that he has no intention to whitewash the acts of this country, the author says nothing about how “civil war” terminology would influence the “commitment problem” of russia. Instead he focuses only on the “commitment problem” of Ukraine—a worrisome lack of balance.


We expect that policy memos justify the problem and then present an evidence-based solution. Unfortunately, Driscoll’s memo does not quite do this. The list of issues is excessive. The author does not present evidence that the problem is relevant. In fact, references to the International Criminal Court show the opposite. Moreover, local public discussions involving Ukrainian politicians, pundits, and the broader population indicate that the problem is significantly overstated.

Most importantly, Driscoll justifies his ideas with two significant manipulations. First, he attributes his own opinion about terminology in Ukraine to a respectful international database. Second, he uses very strong language regarding the size of the russian population in Ukraine (“multi-million”) to sound convincing, although the numbers could be easily debunked with data. In addition to this, he ignores the local context, neglects censuses, polls, qualitative data from local researchers and scholars, frames a discussion of real events in a hypothetical manner, and exhibits a lack of balance. Overall, it seems that Driscoll relies on theoretical dilemmas, clichés, and, perhaps, his experience of working in post-Communist Central Asia and the Caucasus, which is not often applicable to russian-Ukrainian relations, neither current nor historical. His policy suggestion ignores data and, thus, is a serious threat to peace-building in Ukraine and Ukraine’s international relationships.

We would like to emphasize that we are not criticizing a theory per se, nor we are denying anyone’s right to challenge common wisdom, ask tough questions, and search for complex long-term solutions. Nevertheless, we believe in the supremacy of data, operationalization, and empirical analysis. We hope that many years of data collection (both qualitative and quantitative) by numerous Ukrainian scholars and organizations will not be neglected by foreign scholars and that local contexts will not be missed.

Is there any other way to raise a very serious issue of the conflict in Ukraine and debate it? Sure! For example, in order to write this very text we looked up definitions from various international organizations, we checked Ukrainian censuses and polls, we looked into the election data, read existing studies of Ukrainian political elites, then we read press-releases of think-tanks and media publications. Of course, we relied on our experience and prior knowledge. But the data helps to fight against personal biases. We also discussed the results among colleagues because we believe in the merit of peer-review. For the sake of transparency we provide all the links and we state definitions and facts. We would like to encourage foreign political experts who are not experts in the field to follow the same blueprints to avoid any misunderstandings of data and context in the future.


[1] The article investigates over 4,000 statements that the main presidential hopefuls made in the first seven months of 2018. It was published on December 5, 2018.

[2] The survey was executed by DT (Дзеркало тижня). The results were published on July 13, 2018.

[3] The study was conducted by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation. The results were published on January 16, 2018.

[4] The study was conducted by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and the Ministry of Information Policy of Ukraine in collaboration with the International Renaissance Foundation and the Swedish Embassy in Ukraine. The results were published on August 28, 2017.

[5] The sample did not include territories that are temporarily out of control of the Ukrainian authorities (Crimea and certain areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions).

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