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I have read a lot about why Russia wanted to call their invasion a "special military operation" (there were wildly different opinions) and I am now interested in the practical aspects of that difference.

By "practical" I mean "international or legal consequences". I am aware that legal aspects of wars are ultimately decided by the winners or by history so my question is mostly academic (or maybe not).

Could Russia calling the invasion a war have some consequences different from the ones they have today?

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    Internationally speaking, almost certainly no difference. I'm sure there are some Russian domestic legislation implications though. Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 16:18
  • @Fizz - oh that's a very good point, I did not think about the internal Russian consequences. Thanks.
    – WoJ
    Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 16:30
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    Not sure I'm ready to turn it into an answer, but at least two consequences: a) All the insurance claims about Wartime come into effect, causing legal and economy chaos, and b) UN now has to intervene and massively peacekeep the situation. AFAIK Ukraine did not declare a war as well, for the same reasons.
    – alamar
    Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 16:39
  • Putler really thought that this will be a special operation (which will last ~3 days). Now he is not ready to back off (and he claims that everything is going according to the plan). It has also a byproduct for russian sympathizers who can tell that there is no war, just some small military operation and many things are unclear. Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 18:29
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4 Answers 4

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Almost none.

The relevant international conventions are written to apply even if the warring parties do not accept each other as legitimate states. A war is still a war if one party is playing word games.

It may matter regarding the domestic political processes of the party which mis-labels the war. A declared war needs a declared end, an undeclared war might end without a declaration. A declared war may also simplify mobilization and state-of-emergency measures, but a state can resolve that by simply changing draft laws.

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Calling it "special military operation" had an important impact on Russia's internal affairs back in February 2022. General population was reassured that the crisis wouldn't last and that their lives were not in danger, as only professional soldiers were allegedly sent to Ukraine.

This allowed to slowly "boil the frog" until September when the first wave of mobilization started (which, again, was called "partial mobilization"). By that time, people who would have protested against a war in February have already learned the costs of such protests (5+ years in jail) and subconsciously felt the guilt for not protesting earlier and letting crimes like Bucha slaughter happen. At this point, people had motivation to believe it was not a war, so they kept convincing themselves despite obvious sings of the contrary.

Obviously, not calling this invasion a war couldn't fool anyone outside Russia. I don't believe that calling it a war openly would have resulted in harsher sanctions or more businesses fleeing from the country.

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One theory is that it may affect some contractual obligations. Many contracts have clauses which remove one of the contract party's obligations 'in an event of a war.'

Since Russia heavily relies on the contract-driven commodity trade, it may be heavily dependent on not being deemed to be at war, for the purposes of those contracts.

It may still be established, in a court, that Russia is at war, despite not officially declaring war. But that would take litigation. And that would require a party that can claim financial damages, from this semantic difference, which exceed the cost of litigation.

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  • Various companies, Russian and others' have already invoked 'force majeure' on various contracts [typically fossil fuel ones] relating to this war, regardless what it's called. (Contracts hardly ever use the word 'war'.) Commented Mar 3 at 8:31
  • @Dolphin613Motorboat fair enough, but as you can probably imagine, in contracts, in particular, details matter. And the details, of this magnitude, would be interpreted by courts, real ones. So if a contract makes a distinction between a war and a force majeure, the court will treat them differently. Without reading the exact text of exchange-traded futures contracts, I don't know what the exact implications are, but I can't imagine that they are insignificant. Commodity exchanges have persevered through many upheavals. Surely futures contracts account for that. Commented Mar 4 at 4:23
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The main difference is that, as opposed to war, special military operations are intended for quick and dirty, and nonconsequential action to attain a specific tactical objective.

Example: On February 26, 2019, Indian PM Narendra Modi bombed the Pakistani town of Balakot in Mansehra district in KPK province on the false premise of the existence of alleged terror camps. His aim was electoral publicity. India, under no circumstances, wanted an escalation, as it could have started a nuclear war. So, a Mirage-2000 aircraft carried an Israeli bomb and dropped it in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere.

On the next day, Pakistan's air force sent 11 aircraft to India in broad daylight and fired six missiles as a retaliatory measure. Apparently, they too wanted no further escalation. However, Indian MEA Susma Swaraj started yelling for deescalation.

Instead of the term special military operation, India used the term Surgical Strike.

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