Obama administration officials, with a temporary early August lapse by Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Powers, have studiously avoided calling Russia's current actions in eastern Ukraine an "invasion." State department spokesperson Jen Psaki, after referring to the Russian "incursion", was then asked if she agreed that "there is actually a Russian invasion of Ukraine." However, Psaki demurred, saying, "I think I’m going to leave it as I said[.]" A reporter questioned Josh Earnest twice at a press briefing last week about whether or not an invasion was taking place, but Earnest avoided the word to the point that the reporter followed up with: "But doesn’t the language matter in this case? Is there something that is -- you are reluctant to use those words to describe what appears to be happening in front of everyone’s eyes in Ukraine?" Earnest replied that the administration had been "very clear" and "pretty candid", but still avoided the word.The president himself was also directly confronted last week with the invasion question. While continuing to avoid pronouncing the word, the president answered:
I consider the actions that we’ve seen in the last week a continuation of what’s been taking place for months now. As I said in my opening statement, there is no doubt that this is not a homegrown, indigenous uprising in eastern Ukraine. The separatists are backed, trained, armed, financed by Russia. Throughout this process, we’ve seen deep Russian involvement in everything that they’ve done.But Russia's presence in Ukraine extends further back than the current activity in eastern Ukraine. The slow-motion takeover of the Crimean peninsula (with comparatively little violence) was unequivocally termed an "invasion" by none other than President Obama himself in a speech at the end of March. In remarks to European youths in Belgium in late March, the president used "the invasion of Crimea" and "Russia’s invasion of Ukraine" interchangeably. As recently as Wednesday, President Obama has continued to condemn Russia's "occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea," and yet it is as if there has been an invasion reset. It's not that Russia is threatening to invade Ukraine; Putin is threatening re-invasion, or further invading that "sovereign and independent European nation," in the president's words.
The question then becomes, why has "invasion" been dropped from the administration's foreign policy lexicon when discussing Russia and Ukraine? The answer again lies in the words of President Obama, this time at an August 6 press conference. The president was asked what it would take to see "lethal aid" provided to the government of Ukraine. His reply was arguably yet another "red line" [emphasis added]:
Q The troops that are massing on the border are more highly trained. They seem to have more sophisticated weaponry, according to intelligence. Does that make you reconsider -- as a few Democrats have suggested -- providing lethal aid to Ukraine, given those troop movements?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, keep in mind that the Russian army is a lot bigger than the Ukrainian army. So the issue here is not whether the Ukrainian army has some additional weaponry. At least up until this point, they’ve been fighting a group of separatists who have engaged in some terrible violence but who can’t match the Ukrainian army.
Now, if you start seeing an invasion by Russia, that’s obviously a different set of questions. We’re not there yet. What we have been doing is providing a whole host of assistance packages to the Ukrainian government and to their military, and we will continue to work with them to evaluate on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis what exactly they need in order to be able to defend their country and to deal with the separatist elements that currently are being armed by Russia.
But the best thing we can do for Ukraine is to try to get back on a political track.With the Obama administration so invested in the persuasive power of sanctions, the president and his team appeared to be actively avoiding that "different set of questions" that would be raised by an "invasion." And with conflicts erupting around the world and even Democrats calling for increased military action against ISIL in Iraq and perhaps Syria, the president seems to wish to maintain his flexibility where Russia is concerned. And so an "invasion" in March becomes an "incursion" in September, and the people of Ukraine must wait for help, hostages of syntax.