War in Ukraine: 10 terms and concepts explained

A week on from the start of Russia’s ‘special military operation’, what does it all mean?

Russian-backed separatists invaded the Russian-speaking region of Donbas in 2014, sparking a military conflict with the then-small Ukrainian armed forces. After years of dispute, breaking of ceasefire and threats from Russian president Vladimir Putin, the conflict saw a significant escalation last week.

On February 24th, the Kremlin launched a full-scale invasion on Ukraine, in a move that was widely predicted by Western intelligence sources and condemned by the international community. Since then the conflict has claimed thousands of lives, but the fog of war hinders any accurate numbers from being confirmed.

While media have reported extensively on the invasion, there are some terms that might need explaining. We’ve gathered 10 terms and concepts to help understand this spiralling conflict.

‘Special military operation’

On February 24th, Vladimir Putin announced a "special military operation" in Ukraine to "protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime". While disinformation within Russia and online may seek to downplay the significance of a Russian aggression on a sovereign nation, Putin's "special military operation" is widely seen as a term for an invasion.


The Donbas

Russian-backed separatists gained control of large portions of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions since 2014. Located in a primarily Russian-speaking area of Ukraine called the Donbas, these regions have been the focus of the conflict until recent weeks where Russian forces invaded from the north, south and east of the country. The separatist leaders have proclaimed respective independent states known as the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. The Kremlin has recognised these breakaway states, however, both Ukraine and much of the Western world has condemned this act as undermining the sovereignty of Ukraine.

Nato has increased its presence in the Baltic states as a deterrent for further aggression in Europe. So what is Nato?

Despite the cultural links to Russia, the vast majority in Donetsk and Luhansk voted for Ukrainian independence in a 1991 referendum. Nevertheless, president Putin seems intent on bringing the Donbas – and much of Ukraine – back into Moscow’s orbit of influence, whether it’s welcomed by locals or not.

I thought it was Kiev?

On the banks of the Dnieper river in northern Ukraine lies the capital city of Kyiv. With a population of just under three million, its name in Ukrainian is Київ, however, many tend to refer to it as Kiev. So which is the correct name?

The translation from Cyrillic script into the Roman alphabet is not precise, and could be spelled as Kiev, Kyiv, Kiyev or Kyyiv. Kiev was used as the official name of the city under the Soviet Union, and four years after the fall of the state in 1991, a newly independent Ukraine changed its capital's name to Kyiv. Many countries continued using the outdated spelling and after the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched the "KyivNotKiev" campaign in 2018, the Western world took note.

As “Kiev” is rooted in Russian, it became a symbolic act to refer to the capital city as its official Ukrainian name, reflecting its independence from Russia.

Zelensky, Zelenskyi or Zelenskiy?

There are many translations of the Ukrainian president's name. The former actor and comedian has become a symbol of Ukrainian defiance against the Kremlin, but how should you spell his name? After taking office in 2019, there was some confusion about the correct spelling. Volodymyr Zelenskiy's administration clarified the translation of his name into English. The Ukrainian president and his government use Zelenskyy, but other spellings are also acceptable.


The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) is another key player in this conflict, but what is it? The 30-member organization was formed after the second World War to maintain a collective security in Europe and North America. Among the member states are several eastern European countries which joined after 1997. While Ukraine is not a member of Nato, Russia increasingly sees this as a potential threat to their national security. Nato is not directly at war with Russia, but many members are arming Ukraine with defensive weapons to deter Russian aggression. Since the conflict began, Nato has increased its presence in the Baltic states as a deterrent for further aggression in Europe.

What is Swift?

Western countries have primarily used two tools for dissuading the Russian invasion. Firstly, arming Ukraine with defensive weapons to combat Russian armour has proved highly effective since the beginning of the full-scale invasion last week. Secondly, international sanctions have hit Russia’s economy hard and damaged the country’s war machine.

If a country used a Thermobaric bomb against civilians in an urban area, it could be convicted of war crimes

An ace recently played by Western nations was the removal of Russian banks from the Swift system. The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication messaging system is critical for international banking. On Saturday,  the US, UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the European Commission jointly committed to removing some Russian banks from Swift. Although this will harm European lenders' ability to collect up to €27 billion worth of debt owed by Russian individuals and companies, the move is expected to damage Putin's war effort.

Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces

On Monday, Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear deterrence forces on high alert, but what does this mean? Are we getting even closer to midnight on the doomsday clock?

Russia has up to 6,000 nuclear weapons, and although this marks a significant escalation of the conflict, we’re not at panic stations yet. Most nuclear bombs don’t sit in missile silos or loaded onto bombers, but are kept in storage. One likely consequence of this move will be the preparation of such weapons to be used. So no keys are waiting to be turned, but we’re certainly getting closer.

Hot War

The period between 1945 and 1991 saw a “Cold War” between the US and its allies in the West and Russia. Espionage and soft power was the name of the game, and fortunately there was no direct conflict between the US and Russia during this period. The newly erupted war between Russia and the West-aligned Ukraine is considered a “Hot War” where direct combat between states breaks out.

Thermobaric bombs and other weapons

In recent days, Ukraine’s ambassador to the US has accused Russia of using thermobaric weapons, which cause mass devastation to their targets and surrounding area. Also known as a vacuum bomb, if a country used one against civilians in an urban area, it could be convicted of war crimes.

So what does this bomb do? A precision-guided rocket strikes a target, releasing explosive material. This is followed by a second blast which can vaporise humans in the surrounding areas. These have been used by Nazi Germany during the second World War; the US in Vietnam and Afghanistan; and Russia in Chechnya.

Kyiv has so far repelled invaders who advanced from the border less than 230km north of the capital

Among other weaponry that are in use or have the potential to be used in the conflict are: Stinger missiles, or just "stingers", are guided surface-to-air rockets that can be launched by an individual to shoot down helicopters or other aircraft. The US has sent stingers to Ukraine for use against Russian armed forces.

Anti-tank weapons such as Javelin missiles have been sent by the US too. Similar to stingers, these rockets can pierce thick armour and deter advancing Russian forces.

What does Belarus have to do with this?

Belarus borders Ukraine to the north and Russia to the west. Formerly part of the Eastern Bloc and a satellite state of the Soviet Union, Belarus has been a key player in the invasion of Ukraine. President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled the country since 1994, and has primarily sought to maintain the independence of the country. However, after a hotly contested election in 2020 that preceded mass rioting, the president has become closer with Putin and has supported his preparations for war.

In February Russian troops used Belarus as a launch pad for their invasion of Ukraine from the north after Russian troops conducted joint military exercises in Belarus. Kyiv has so far repelled invaders who advanced from the border less than 230km north of the capital.