There is no way of knowing what future historians will call the Ukraine-Russia War, but it could say a great deal about how the war is understood. What’s in a name? When it comes to wars more than often meets the eye. Naming a war after its main combatants can render it relatively uninteresting to future generations. This is a chronic problem in military history. For instance, the War of 1812 just might be the worst name for a war ever conceived. The name tells you nothing about the war except its date and that is only partly correct. The war lasted from 1812 – 1815, not that anyone is asking. The War of 1812 as a name has relegated that conflict to anonymity, if not irrelevancy.
Another name for a war much closer in size and scale to the current Ukraine-Russia conflict is the Russo-Japanese War. The war could use a more descriptive name that would express its importance. It was the first very large conflict of the 20th century, with a great power and a country soon to be one facing each other in battle. The name does nothing to express what the war was about, nor its importance. The Russo-Japanese War dealt a major blow to the Tsar and Russian Army’s prestige, set off a revolution in Russia that led to political reforms including the creation of the Duma (Russian Parliament), dealt a shocking blow to racial theorists who believed Asians were no match for Europeans in warfare and signaled the rise of Japan. This does not come across in the war’s name which is just as bland as most history textbooks that use the name.
Raising the Flag – The War of Complete Independence
Name That War – Rising From Obscurity
Accurately naming a war with world historical consequences in just a few words is an extremely difficult task. Some wars have done better than others by their names. World Wars I and II come to mind. These simple, yet effective names, express the global scale of the fighting. Even if many nations did not participate, every nation was affected in some form or fashion. The Thirty Years’ War is also a name illustrating a central aspect of that conflict. “Thirty Years” speaks of a seemingly unending war that wreaked havoc for a lengthy time period. It might even be said that the name of a war can make or break historical interest in a conflict. The War of Jenkins’ Ear comes to mind in this regard. Anyone who hears that name feels an uncontrollable temptation to learn whether the war really was fought over someone’s ear. The reasons for that war were much more than Jenkins losing his ear, but the name ensures it a certain amount of fame. This also demonstrate the power of a war’s name to stimulate interest in obscure conflicts.
Giving a more provocative name to the Ukraine-Russia War would go a long way towards greater recognition of the conflict and its historical ramifications, many of which will only become apparent after the war ends. The war’s name may seem esoteric, but this is a war that must not be forgotten. It should be remembered as the conflict that ended a long period of peace and relative prosperity for Eastern Europe. Other than the Yugoslav Wars, there had been lots of tyranny and very few military actions in Eastern Europe since 1945 with only a couple of notable exceptions (Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Prague Spring in 1968). The Ukraine-Russia War will likely be given different names by each of the main combatants. This will be done for patriotic and propaganda purposes. Historians in countries that are not directly involved in the war will likely stick with blander names. The war given to the war will speak volumes about how one side or the other interprets it.
Russian retreat – Scene from the Russo-Japanese War after the Battle of Mukden (Credit: PF Collier & Son)
Putin’s Folly – The Special Military Operation
There will be a great deal of interest in the name Russia gives the conflict. That is because the Russians have been the inheritor and enabler of perhaps the biggest misnomer for a war in recorded history. World War II is not known as such in Russia. Instead, the Soviet name for it was the Great Patriotic War. This arose from a Stalinist rebranding of the war while it was ongoing. The name boosted morale by stimulating defense of the homeland. It also recalled a theme in Russian history, where invaders of the country are defeated. The Great Patriotic War’s name put communism on the backburner and nationalism at the forefront in the effort to win the war. Yet there was nothing very patriotic about the Soviet invasion of Finland and occupation of eastern Poland in 1939. Those events were as much part of World War II as was the Great Patriotic War. The Soviets sidestepped this inconvenient truth.
The Putin regime coopted The Great Patriotic War, misusing history for their own interests. The regime has also played the name game to obscure the nature and virulence of the war in Ukraine. Hence, the regime’s insistence on calling the current conflict a “special military operation” rather than a war. The Kremlin is in the business of trying to write history before it happens. Unfortunately for them, they have not been any more successful in this regard than they have while fighting the war. It is doubtful if Russian historians in the future will refer to the war as the “Special Military Operation in Ukraine” or the “Denazification of Ukraine” or the “War on NATO” though the Kremlin would certainly prefer one of those. “Putin’s Debacle” or “Putin’s Folly” would be much more appropriate.
Malevolence in Mariupol – The War of Russian Aggression
Breaking Free – The War of Complete Independence
From the Ukrainian perspective, naming the conflict could mean placing the blame squarely on the Russians. Thus, it would not be surprising if they named it, “The War of Russian Aggression.” Depending on how the war plays out and if Ukraine can achieve something close to a complete victory (expelling Russia from all Ukrainian territory except for Crimea seems possible), the war might be given a more patriotic name. The War of Liberation would be a popular choice. The name implies a noble war, fought for a higher cause then independence which Ukraine already had. The war has been branded as one to uphold democratic values. Less popular, but no less true would be “The War of Complete Independence.”
Ever since the Soviet Union collapsed Ukraine has been at the mercy of Russian meddling in their internal affairs. The Russians have used puppet rulers, collaborationists, energy resources, spies, proxy forces, disinformation and every other form of fifth columnists imaginable to undermine Ukraine’s shifts towards the west and away from Russia. The unprovoked invasion of Ukraine ordered by Putin was the last in a long line of attempts at subversion. If Ukraine can continue their victorious ways, then they would achieve complete independence from Russia. That would be a great victory and a worthy name for the war.