Perhaps Putin’s phrase “special military operation” should be seen as something more insidious than a euphemism for war. At the very least, it is consistent with Russia’s genocidal aims and practices in Ukraine.
If we take the Clausewitzian metaphor of war as a duel somewhat literally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine becomes a struggle between two equals, two entities with the same dignity, the same right to exist. After all, duels have traditionally been fought between two parties capable of giving satisfaction for a perceived injury by one to the other’s honor. An officer could duel another officer, but not a sergeant, a lowly conscript, or a civilian occupying a more modest social position.
By calling its invasion a “special military operation,” Russia denies Ukraine’s worthiness and sovereignty. It casts Ukraine and Ukrainians as other, fundamentally inferior, or devoid of honor, so to speak. Rejecting Ukrainian statehood outright, the term “special military operation” facilitates what the talking heads in Russia discuss openly on state TV: genocide, the elimination of Ukrainian culture, ethnicity, and language.
At the same time, the term “special military operation” renders Ukrainian resistance illegitimate in Russian eyes. Thus, Russia brands the soldiers who defended Mariupol to the end “terrorists.” And its leaders become apoplectic when Ukraine dares to fire on targets inside Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea.
Given the logic of Russia’s rhetoric and violence, the problem with “special military operation” becomes one not only of euphemism hiding war from Russians. The euphemism also creates space for, even favors, genocidal rhetoric and policy.