Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy: Time to call Russia-Ukraine conflict a ‘war’

Olivier Knox, Yahoo News
Yahoo! News
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This Aug. 23, 2014 satellite image made by DigitalGlobe and annotated by NATO shows what the military alliance says are Russian self-propelled artillery units near Krasnodon, Ukraine, inside territory controlled by Russian separatists. On Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014, senior NATO official, Brig. Gen. Nico Tak, said at least 1,000 Russian troops have poured into Ukraine with sophisticated equipment, leaving no doubt that the Russian military had invaded southeastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/NATO, DigitalGlobe)

With Russian forces apparently rolling across eastern Ukraine, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy told Yahoo News on Thursday that it is past time to call the escalating conflict a “war” and to label Moscow’s actions an “invasion.”

“By any conventional definition of war, there is war happening between Ukraine and Russia. And it’s been occurring essentially since the invasion of Crimea” in February, Murphy, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a telephone interview.

When Russian forces reportedly rolled into eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, the White House called it a “military movement,” “military activities” and “a continued effort to destabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine.” The State Department referred to an “incursion” and explicitly declined to call the escalating conflict an invasion or “war.”

Back in March, however, National Security Adviser Susan Rice had condemned Putin’s “invasion and annexation of Crimea,” a strategic peninsula in Ukraine’s south.

It's not clear whether calling Russia's latest military moves a "war" or an "invasion" would change much, beyond raising the temperature of already heated rhetorical exchanges between Washington and Moscow. That, in turn, might make an already elusive diplomatic solution even more unlikely.

Murphy said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to “commence a conventional invasion” in eastern Ukraine was part of a pattern of “panicked reactions to moments of weakness.”

Earlier, NATO released satellite images that, the alliance said, showed Russian armored columns operating inside Ukraine. Russia has denied invading its neighbor.

Ukraine government forces had recently enjoyed successes against Russian-backed separatists, said the Connecticut lawmaker, prompting Putin to send in troops to “keep that part of the conflict frozen.”

“I don’t think he’s going to be dumb enough to send 20,000 troops inside Ukraine,” Murphy said.

At the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki bristled Thursday at the notion that avoiding the term “invasion” had any significant bearing on U.S. policy.

“There’s no new set of obligations based on that kind of terminology,” Psaki said.

“Our focus is more on what Russia is doing, what we’re going to do about it, than what we’re calling it,” she told reporters. “Regardless of what it’s called, Russia’s actions need to stop.”