It is a rare war where the local population and defending army speak the language of the invader so well. Clearly, shared language facilitated talking through tense stand-offs and other encounters that could have otherwise easily devolved into bloodshed during the invasion of Crimea. In my first blog post, I identified discourse as a significant feature in Ukrainians’ responses to the invaders. (Some examples of subsequent encounters made it into my earlier posts here, here, and here.) In place of the post-Soviet aphasia Sergei Oushakine found 20 years ago, there’s been an explosion of discourse. That in itself is worth analyzing. For now, I’m just taking note. Forget Stratego, Battleship, or other games of traditional tactical maneuver as heuristic; forget tank counts or brigade movements as the only, or even primary, means of understanding and assessing. This war has consisted of verbal performance to an extent that invites interaction analysis as a method for apprehending its tactics. This post shares some of the last military engagements of the invasion.
The 204th Tactical Aviation Brigade in Belbek, Crimea became famous through footage (carried on many local news affiliates in the United States, as well as on youtube) of Col. Yuri Mamchur negotiating with invaders through live fire on March 4.
[On the video, when shooting starts, you can hear one soldier from the ranks shouting, “My khozyayini zdes’!” (We’re the masters of this house!) As the two sides get within arm’s reach, another demands from the weapon-toting opponents whether they will open fire on “the Soviet flag,” i.e., the brigade’s flag that bears Soviet symbols in unchanged reference to its WWII origins.] Col. Mamchur stood his ground and secured a ceasefire. No doubt the Russian side has its own tales of valor and courage. I’m not as plugged in, but my sense is that they are matters of more centralized production and are circulated more on national television channels and less through social media than their Ukrainian analogues. I could be wrong. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows; add your comment below!
After that incident, the base was besieged. The brigade opened its own website to spread its own word about the siege conditions. I was surprised that a Ministry of Defense would permit one of its units to operate its own public communications during a war. MoDs are famous for centralizing the amount, kind, and tone of communications with non-military audiences. Remember when the innovation of the second Iraq War in this respect was to “embed” journalists with brigades? This unit cut out the middleman. The brigade’s website reported on March 21 that the base received an ultimatum to surrender or it would be “stormed.” It was stormed. The site has posted footage of casualties but reported no deaths. It then reported that Col. Mamchur himself, called on apparently false pretenses to “negotiations,” was disappeared. He managed to phone his wife and get out the words “I’ve been taken. I’m on Bakinskaya,” before the call was abruptly terminated. He remains missing. One of Col. Mamchur’s command reports the following conversation with the Russian military who took the base, also on the brigade’s website:
— Мы славяне, черт возьми. Вывызвали нашего командира на переговоры. Где он сейчас? [We’re all Slavs, for Pete’s sake. You called our commander to negotiations. Where is he now?]
— Да мне пох*й. [Fuck off.]
— Это по-вашему нормально? [Is that, in your language/according to your ways, accepted?]
— А почему нет? Ну взяли, отоспится где-то. Вы не в том положении, чтобы диктовать условия. [And why not? We took him, he’ll be sleeping somewhere. You are in no position to dictate conditions.]
Thus goes discourse in face-to-face encounter, post “legitimation.” Hardly surprising. What is surprising was the measured or conversational tone of many pre-“referendum” encounters, cast into stark contrast with exchanges like this. The website shows one way that communication is being accomplished absent face-to-face facilitation. The more remarkable turn in discourse at this point comes from Ukrainian civilians seeking to communicate or to perform solidarity with soldiers on bases or ships blockaded by Russian military forces.
In the following clip (sent to me by a Ukrainian interlocutor, a Kyiv law prof), this is what you’ll see: The coast of Crimea. Looking down the road, an army vehicle flying Russian flags barreling along. Off the coast, a ship; over the waves, sounds of its reveille, the Ukrainian national anthem. [The ship is the “Костянтин Ольшанський,” Konstantin Ol’shanks’kiy, of the 5th brigade of the Ukrainian navy, blockaded off the coast of Crimea by Russian ships. It has not surrendered.] A couple on coast, discreetly, with a text-to-Morse code app, signals. The text on the screen of the phone reads Ukraina z vami. [Ukraine is with you.]
Yet again, a master class in how to fight a (mostly) bloodless war. (And, on the subject of blood and bloodless, one more background note: two members of the activist collective that produced the clip, Babylon ’13, were disappeared in Crimea last week. Five days later, they were dumped in Kherson oblast’, southern Ukraine. They have not yet made any public statements save that they are in medical care and need time for recovery. Under those circumstances, I was surprised that the couple in a video released after that incident, made behind the lines in Crimea, show their faces.)
Monica Eppinger is an Assistant Professor at the Saint Louis University College of Law. She has extensive experience in diplomacy, serving nine years as a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service with tours of duty at the U.S. Consulate General in Kaduna, Nigeria; U.S. Embassy, Kiev, Ukraine; and at the State Department in Washington, D.C. where her responsibilities included policy in the former Soviet Union, Caspian basin energy development, and West African security. Her research concentrates on sovereignty and selfhood. Her main areas of expertise include property, national security, and international law.
 One way that Ukrainians’ use of Russian language differs from Russians’ is in the use of expletives. Ukrainians use much softer expletives. I, for example, in 20 years of residence and travel to Ukraine, have heard the expression used here only once out loud.
 When he asks, Is this accepted practice/normal for you guys, it is unclear whether the speaker is asking about the use of the word “fuck,” or to the practice of calling someone to negotiations under false pretenses, or to disappearing someone called to negotiations. Or some combination.