Terrorists and pro-Russian militants: Depictions of the Enemy in the Ukrainian conflict

Terrorists and pro-Russian militants: Depictions of the Enemy in the Ukrainian conflict

by David Rypel

The text analyses a way in which Ukrainian official discourse –represented here by a spokesperson on matters related to the so-called Anti-Terrorist Operation – constructs the Enemy whom the military confronts in the east of the country. It reaches a conclusion that in this construction the Enemy is excluded in two ways: from the common nation and from the common morality. The article is a reworked and updated version of a contribution originally presented at the 8th Student Conference of Security Research in Prague, the original version of the article in Czech may be found here: http://c4ss.cz/minule-studentske-konference/. The piece is written by David Rypel, a student of security studies and political science at the Masaryk University, Brno.

The Ukrainian armed conflict has broken out almost three years ago and it is anything but close to resolving. The conflict marked by a sort of “empirical fuzziness” regarding the involved actors – it is unclear whom exactly has the Ukrainian government been fighting – which among other things contributed to a rise of a concept of “hybrid warfare”.

It seems now that a Western mainstream public debate has mostly acknowledged the involvement of a Russian state in this conflict as a fact – and I do not intend to contest this belief at all. Nevertheless, it is worthy to take a step back and ask who the warring parties have been. In this essay, I am interested in quite a fundamental question: who is the Ukrainian Enemy in the particular case? By the Enemy I mean here only combatants fighting against the Ukrainian state. I am not going to make the abovementioned fuzziness any clearer, for I am not asking who they are “objectively” but rather how they are perceived or how their identity is constructed by Ukrainian official discourse.

It is relevant to ask such questions because we have no access to meaningful reality other than through language and representations – or as a classic poststructuralist theorem posits, nothing exists outside of discourse (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 108). To make my investigation more coherent, I will to an extent rely on Lene Hansen’s conception of poststructuralist discourse analysis (Hansen, 2006), which provides clearly formulated theoretical and methodological framework more or less based on previous works in the field.

Despite talking about the Ukrainian official discourse, the scope of this essay is more modest: I will focus not on official discourse in its completeness but only on one speaker, that is colonel Andriy Lysenko (see featured photo), spokesperson for the National Security and Defense Council on matters related to the so-called Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO). Although he is only one person among a high number of the official discourse’s representatives, Lysenko is an interesting object of a discourse analysis because he is at the forefront of informing the public on development in the conflict area. Further, the maps depicting situation on a battlefield which Lysenko uses during his presentations will also be analysed. Discourse is not limited to a language in a narrow sense and maps thus serve as a just another medium of meanings.

In this text, I aim to draw reader’s attention to two points which I consider particularly noteworthy. First, that construction of the Enemy has been happening in two main dimensions: as an exclusion from the common nation and as an exclusion from the common morality. Second and perhaps more interestingly, that this construction has changed suddenly, once the moral dimension vanished. Although it is not the main aim of this essay, I will try to interpret this change briefly.

On selection of sample

Analysed sample consists of 22 Lysenko’s press conferences and two maps. At first, conferences had been chosen entirely by random, but later I have found that the discourse significantly changed in February 2015. Therefore, I have been focusing more on conferences around this date to better capture and verify this change. The maps have been chosen from within these two periods – I suppose that one before and one after the change is enough, because in this case, structure is more interesting than specific content (e.g. directions of attacks etc.). The list of the analysed appearances may be found at the end of the text.

Because the press conferences are captured in videos, I will use the opportunity and analyse Lysenko’s performances in both narrow and bit wider sense: I will focus on clear articulations of signs attributed to the Self and the Enemy in his utterances, but I will also try to examine the visual appearance of those conferences. The maps will be also investigated in terms of both their verbal and non-verbal content. Not only words, but colours, symbols etc. as well mediate meanings.


No. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
Analysed conferences July 18, 2014 July 20, 2014 Sept. 6, 2014 Oct. 8, 2014 Nov. 11, 2014 Dec. 19, 2014 Dec. 23, 2014 Jan. 30, 2015 Feb. 6, 2015 Feb. 15, 2015 Feb. 19, 2015
Notes Day after MH17 was shot down Day after signature of the (first) Minsk agreement Minsk 2 ceasefire should have started The maps have changed
No. 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22
Analysed conferences March 3, 2015 Mar. 8, 2015 Mar. 16, 2015 Apr. 1, 2015 July 6, 2015 Oct. 30, 2015 Mar. 3, 2016 Apr. 4, 2016 Oct. 17, 2016 Nov. 12, 2016 Dec. 28, 2016

Table 1: Analysed conferences

Colonel Lysenko, a guide to objective information

Before turning to the content of Lysenko’s utterances, I will first describe and analyse usual course of the conferences.

Since the second half of 2014 Colonel Andriy Lysenko has served as a spokesperson on issues related to the ATO. Press conferences have been taking place on almost daily basis within a framework of the Ukraine Crisis Media Centre, a NGO striving to gather relevant persons to speak about developments in Ukraine (UCMC, 2016).

The speaker is usually introduced by his military rank. He stands in front of an audience not as an official or a politician, but as a representative of the military dressed in a battledress (see image 1). He does not gesticulate; his voice is monotonous and both his face and vocabulary express no emotions. In his appearances, he stresses that he describes developments objectively and encourages present journalists to fact-check information and ask him questions. Concurrently, he refuses to provide inaccurate data and is ready to admit any lack of information.

Even though the speaker serves as a spokesperson of an advisory state body and holds a senior military officer rank, he wears an ordinary army combat uniform. That may serve to build up his authority and underline seriousness of the situation – he is reporting on a conflict, a phenomenon beyond normality. In combination with his mien, this leads to an impression that he is an uninvolved intermediary, who presents facts “as they are”, i.e. without exaggerations, emotions, politics etc. Therefore, it seems that there is no reason to deem provided information faulty or problematic – even though it is unclear how the presented information are processed before they reach Lysenko. Indeed, in none of the analysed conferences polemical or confrontational question was raised, journalist asked only for clarifications or verifications of circulating stories.

Moreover, by emphasizing that he is the right person to judge which information is correct, Lysenko has a power to effectively suppress alternative discourses: the truth lies with the spokesperson. However, I do not investigate alternative discourses here, so it is not possible to say whether the official discourse is indeed hegemonic.

We are dealing with terrorists

As I mentioned in the introduction, there was a significant shift in official discourse regarding the Enemy. For this reason, I will first analyse situation before this change, that means before mid-February 2015. I argue that in this period, the Enemy had been excluded from the common nation and the common morality.

Hansen suggests to analyse identity as a compound of three elements: spatial, temporal, and ethical identity (Hansen, 2006: 41). It seems that the temporal dimension is not salient here, it is not possible to tell from Lysenko’s appearances, whether there are any temporal differences between the Self and the Other. Nonetheless, there is a plenty to see in the categories of spatiality and ethics. The former is concerned with delineation of both territorial and abstract political space, whereas the latter “with the discursive construction of ethics, morality, and responsibility [to act]” (idem: 45).

In the case of spatial dimension, the official discourse explicitly articulates several signs, which are linked together and simultaneously differentiated from the other set. The most salient spatial differentiation is the national one. Lysenko describes the Self as Ukrainian, whereas on the opposite side there are Russians or possibly some people belonging to other unspecified nations, but pro “pro-Russian” and not Ukrainian. If there are any Ukrainians fighting against the military, they are coerced to such action by force (UCMC, 2014a) or are deceived by money but eventually, they will see through the illusion (UCMC, 2014g).

The first map further supports this discursive division (see map 1). On the one hand, the part of Donbas controlled by the Ukrainian government is coloured in Ukrainian national colours. It is an explicit statement: Here are the Ukrainians and this war is waged by Ukrainian nation. On the other hand, the enemy territory is in a sort of light brown – which is interesting choice if we consider that the same colour, only in a darker shade, is already present in the part of the map which represents Russian territory. I assume that this corresponds with previously stated: we are fighting against Russians and maybe some other people, but aligned with Russia. One more remark regarding colours: I searched maps of conflict situations and it seems unusual to use dark and distinctive colour for not directly involved states. Even if I accept an argument that Russia actually is involved, the chosen colour is very distinctive and in combination with the cut of the image and dull green of the rest of Ukraine it creates an impression that the contested territory is about to be swallowed by a much bigger neighbour.

I also examined more closely symbols used in the map and the map’s legend. The symbol of a tank is described as “the location of military units of the Russian Federation”, but one can find these symbols not only in the Russian territory but also in the light brown one. On the contrary, there is no symbol for a location of non-Russian units by which I mean local armed groups. That means either there are no local combatants or they are included in the category of Russians. Furthermore, there is a symbol of a missile system firing in direction of Ukrainian territory which is missing in the legend completely. Its meaning is open for discussion – perhaps it serves to intensify already dramatic appearance of a map full of explosions and arms, but I am convinced it is not a mistake, because it appears in the maps steadily for years.

This is what I call the national exclusion: The official discourse supresses a possibility that there might be some Ukrainians who are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs and so decided to take up arms. Instead, it narrates a story about a war with strangers and about a conflict between two nations.

Map 1: The situation in the eastern regions of Ukraine, February 15, 2015 (UCMC, 2015c).

The Enemy is also spatially constructed as mercenary, bandit, and most notably terrorist against whom the Anti-Terrorist Operation is waged after all. In the first analysed period, the term terrorists is ubiquitous in Lysenko’s reports and it is also used in the map. On the other side, there are patriots, heroes, defenders of our country and so on. Because most of these terms bear some moral significance and thus overlap with ethical identity, I will focus here more on this aspect of such categories.

The term terrorism is heavily politicised. It is a special category of enemies – terrorists are people, who blatantly act with no regard to common norms as ius in bello and despise morality. Therefore, they do not occupy the same moral grounds – if any – as we do. They are brutal, irrational and evil. There is no room for negotiating with terrorists, we must fight them and defeat them. In depicting the Enemy as terrorist – and Lysenko does it very frequently and without hesitation – he constructs the relation as a situation with only one solution: military defeat – that is morally right and desirable. Less obvious but nonetheless relevant characteristic of Lysenko’s descriptions is that in early appearances he linguistically downplays a violent dimension of the military’s course of action. By this I do not mean any brutality but a simple fact of violent fighting inevitably linked to armed conflicts. In his description, the Ukrainian army does not attack, it only advances into enemy’s territory, it encircles enemy units, does not retreat, resists shelling etc. This may stand in contrast to the Enemy’s aggressiveness on the other side.

Furthermore, the Enemy is a bandit and mercenary. While the Self is a patriot who fights heroically to liberate “the Ukrainian soil” occupied by terrorists, the Enemy is not motivated by values. Enemy combatants are willing to be hired and pragmatically fight as mercenaries only for profit which they generate at the expense of other people. It is not possible to feel any sympathy for them, because they do not bring anything positive. According to Lysenko, people suffer because of their presence: electricity does not work, infrastructure is destroyed, residential areas are shelled. On the contrary, people welcome presence of the military – Lysenko speaks about people collecting resources for soldiers, children visiting them in hospitals and giving them pictures. Troops help locals in return: they repair infrastructure, build field hospitals etc. We do not know whether there are any cases of negative attitudes towards the military and whether there is any support for the Enemy, who in descriptions is alien and designed for elimination. In one case, people are passive victims waiting for rescue, whereas in the other “active patriots”.

There is more to add, but for the sake of brevity let me conclude that the official discourse excludes the Enemy on two dimensions. First, the Enemy is excluded from the nation. The combatants fight against Ukraine and therefore they are not Ukrainian but Russian or closely not specified by nationality but alien. Who is Ukrainian stands on the side of Ukraine. It is not a civil war fought among the same people which could be resolved e.g. by adjusting legal powers of regions. Second, the Enemy is excluded from morality. The combatants are amoral and thus their claims are unacceptable, the only option is to fight with them.

Terrorists are gone

On February 19, 2015, the maps Lysenko uses changed: the map legend is different and there are some new symbols (see map 2). Accordingly, Lysenko’s vocabulary changed after this date, although less abruptly. The national exclusion has remained but the moral one diminished.

The most obvious change is that the Enemy is no longer a terrorist, mercenary and bandit. Both the maps and Lysenko started predominantly using terms (pro-Russian) militants, enemy or illegal armed formations. With one exception (UCMC, 2015f) terms related to terrorism and banditry do not reappear. Overall, the terms used are more neutral and do not say much, so the Enemy is now rather anonymous combatant, but still non-Ukrainian.

The only remnants of moral exclusion are stories about heroic Ukrainian servicemen which are accompanied by their photos or video messages. According to the map, the conquered territory is no longer liberated from terrorist occupiers but just “under control of Ukraine”. The discourse is now more focused on adhering to the Minsk agreement and its violations by the Enemy. It is often mentioned that the Enemy has carried out armed provocations – they are thus described as not caring about peace, bellicose and treacherous. The combatants’ activities are thus rather illegal than immoral.

Map 2: The situation in the eastern regions of Ukraine, February 19, 2015 (UCMC, 2015d).

Discourses do change “naturally”. They react to new situations, competing discourses etc. However, in this case, the transformation was very abrupt and simultaneity of the change in Lysenko’s vocabulary and the map legend implies that it was orchestrated. This essay does not deal with the other side of identity-policy link, but it is tempting to interpret this change and I will briefly present my interpretation, although it is not a deep analysis and so I do not consider it as a proper answer.

The maps changed on February 19, 2015 and Lysenko’s vocabulary shortly after that. That is just three days after the ceasefire of the “Minsk 2” agreement was supposed to come into force and one day after the military retreated from the village of Debaltseve, which became a significant loss for the Ukrainian army – both strategic and symbolic. I assume that this change may have been motivated by an effort to deescalate the situation and present the Enemy as someone, who is hostile but possible to reason with. The Ukrainian government may have come to a conclusion that it was impossible to win this war by mere force. In the context of other problems – e.g. economic and political instability – it became thus necessary to end the conflict in some way, even in a way that would not mean clear victory and instead would bring significant concessions as federalisation of the state. Therefore, the public would have to be prepared for a possibility that they will live in one state with the Enemy and that they should give way to some of their demands although they sacrificed so much while resisting them. In this sense, the shift in identity would follow the shift in policy as Hansen assumes.

Although people fighting in the field have not changed, their identity has. From evil terrorists and mercenaries, they have become bellicose but probably rational armed militants. What exactly did it mean for policy should be a topic for another analysis.



List of analysed press conferences and maps (ordered by date):

UCMC. 2014a. “Spokesman for National Security and Defense Council Information Center: Malaysian Flight MH-17 was outside the range of Ukraine’s surface to air defense systems”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, July 18, 2014. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/6232-rechnik-rnbo. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2014b. “Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council Spokesman (RNBO) Andriy Lysenko: Terrorists Hinder the Investigation of the Plane they Shot Down”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, July 20, 2014. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/6449-doki-teroristi-pereshkodzhayut-rozs. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2014c. “NSDC: After the ceasefire was declared, there have been no casualties among the Ukrainian servicemen”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, September 6, 2014. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/8977-rnbo-57. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2014d. “NSDC: Terrorists infringe the new reached ‘silence mode’”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, October, 8, 2014. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/10839-rnbo-83. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2014e. “National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine: Militants on tanks forced people to vote on pseudo-elections”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, November 11, 2014. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/12356-rnbo-103. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2014f. “Andriy Lysenko: Militants are redeploying manpower and equipment”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, December 19, 2014. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/15076-andriy-lysenko. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2014g. “Andriy Lysenko: 3 Ukrainian servicemen were injured within the last day”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, December 23, 2014. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/15180-andrijj-lisenko-4. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2015a. “Andriy Lysenko: Combats near Vuhlehirsk continue, ATO forces are repelling attacks”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, January 30, 2015. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/16857-andrijj-lisenko-26. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2015b. “Andriy Lysenko: Eight Ukrainian servicemen were liberated from captivity”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, February 6, 2015. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/17307-andrijj-lisenko-32. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2015c. “Andriy Lysenko: Attacks of Illegal Armed Groups Decline After Declaration of Ceasefire”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, February 15, 2015. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/17890-russian-andrejj-lysenko-posle-obyavleniya-pe. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2015d. “Andriy Lysenko: More than 2,500 Ukrainian servicemen withdrawn from Debaltseve”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, February 19, 2015. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/18221-andrijj-lisenko-42. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2015e. “Andriy Lysenko: Russia-backed insurgents deny access to OSCE observers to heavy weapons concentration sites”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, March 3, 2015. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/19204-andrijj-lisenko-50. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2015f. “Andriy Lysenko: Ceasefire regime is generally intact”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, March 8, 2015. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/19535-russian-andrejj-lysenko-v-celom-rezhim-prekra. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2015g. “Andriy Lysenko: Ukrainian Armed Forces de-mine Kominternove”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, March 16, 2015. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/20074-andrijj-lisenko-59. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2015h. “Andriy Lysenko: Ukrainian Army keeps pro-Russian forces at bay next to Shyrokyne despite militant’s use of heavy weapons”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, April 1, 2015. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/21867-andrij-lisenko-8. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2015i. “Andriy Lysenko: Militants wounded two civilians in Shchastya, Luhansk region”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, July 6, 2015. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/27989-andrij-lisenko-67. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2015j. “Andriy Lysenko: ATO forces started withdrawing artillery systems in the Donetsk sector”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, October 30, 2015. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/27989-andrij-lisenko-67. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2016a. “Colonel Andriy Lysenko: About 130 mortar shells launched at ATO troops’ positions near Avdiivka”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, March 3, 2016. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/41542-andrij-lisenko-192. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2016b. “Work of checkpoint in Stanytsia Luhanska suspended due to militant shelling – Colonel Lysenko”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, April 4, 2016. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/41978-lisenko-7. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2016c. “Colonel Lysenko: Situation is the most difficult in Mariupol sector”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, October 17, 2016. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/48173-lisenko-24. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2016d. “Colonel Lysenko: New batch of reinforcement for militants arrives from Russia”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, November 12, 2016. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/49407-lysenko-23. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2016e. “Ministry of Defense: Ukrainian army incurred no casualties over the past 24 hours”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center, December 28, 2016. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/51228-polkovnik-lisenko-50. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.



Hansen, Lene. 2006. Security as Practice: Discourse Analysis and the Bosnian War. London: Routledge.

Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe. 2001. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso.

Razumkov Centre. 2015. “How Much Do You Trust the Following Social Institutes?”. Razumkov Centre (online). Available from: http://www.razumkov.org.ua/eng/poll.php?poll_id=1030. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.

UCMC. 2016. “About Press Center”. Ukraine Crisis Media Center. Available from: http://uacrisis.org/about. Accessed: 29. 12. 2016.