Putin’s reaction to Ukraine’s counter-offensive

Vladimir Putin answers journalists’ questions. Photo: Sergei Bobylev, TASS.

Some good news are finally coming from the East. This month Ukrainian forces have launched a successful counter-offensive in the northeast of the country. Their strategy was very clever. In the end of August, they pretended to be planning an attack on Kherson in the south. As a result, Russia redeployed its forces, leaving the north-eastern regions vulnerable to attack. This allowed the Ukrainian army to liberate thousands of square kilometers in the Kharkiv region. Russian troops have fled in disarray, leaving their weapons and vehicles.

Since then, all eyes have been on Vladimir Putin. How would he react to these events? Keeping silent was no longer an option. The humiliation was too big, too obvious.

On September 16, at the end of his visit to Uzbekistan, Putin faced journalists. One of the questions was, what Putin thought about the course of the “special military operation”? Did he think it was necessary to adjust the plan? This is what Putin said:

No, the plan will not be adjusted. The General Staff takes real-time decisions in the course of the operation and some are considered a key, the main goal. The main goal is to liberate the entire territory of Donbass.

This work continues despite the attempts of the Ukrainian army to launch a counter-offensive. We are not stopping our offensive operations in Donbass itself. They continue. They continue at a slow pace but consistently and gradually, the Russian army is taking more and more new territory.

I must emphasise that we are fighting not with a full army but only with part, with contracted forces. But, of course, this is linked with certain personnel parameters and so on. This is why we are not in a rush in this respect. But essentially, there have been no changes. The General Staff considers some objectives important and others secondary but the main task remains the same and it is being carried out.

Vladimir Putin, 16.09.2022. Source: en.kremlin.ru

Putin’s answer contains a peculiar lexical choice. Instead of acknowledging Ukraine’s success, he speaks about its “attempts” to launch a counter-offensive. According to a dictionary, the word popytka “attempt” means “an action directed at fulfilling or achieving something, but without full confidence in success”.

Similarly, Paul Grice wrote about the verb “try” the following: “what makes ‘A tried to do X’ appropriate is the real or supposed possibility . . . that A might not have succeeded in doing X” (1989: 18).

So, when someone makes an attempt to do something, this means that the outcome is uncertain. By using this word, Putin denies that the Ukrainian army has achieved any significant results.

I see this denial as a part of Putin’s long-term strategy of downplaying the war (which is only a special operation) and its costs for Russia. On another occasion, Putin famously claimed, “We haven’t even started anything yet in earnest”, as if the thousands of his soldiers’ lives were nothing. This is a typical attitude of Russian rulers and of Putin in particular. As an illustration, take his reaction to the disaster of the submarine Kursk in 2000.

But there is another benefit of using the word “attempts”, a more subtle one. The word has connotations of a likely failure. These connotations are not encoded in the word itself, though. Again, this is what Paul Grice wrote about the related verb “try”,

A doctor may tell a patient, whose leg has been damaged, to try to move his toes tomorrow, and the patient may agree to try; but neither is committed to holding that the patient will fail to move his toe, or that it will be difficult for him to do so.

Paul Grice (1989: 7)

Still, the connotation of failure is real. It can be traced in actual language use. The word popytka “attempt” in the Russian National Corpus is preceded primarily by adjectives neudachnyi “unsuccessful” (62 times), bezuspeshnyi “without success” (43 times), besplodnyi “fruitless” (19 times) and similar words. In total, it occurs 170 times with adjectives that mean that the attempt is unsuccessful, and only 17 times with adjectives like udachnuy “successful”. Although both successful and unsuccessful attempts are possible, the word has a clear negative bias.

This bias may be due to the fact that successful attempts of doing something are less likely to be called attempts than unsuccessful actions. For example, many singers who were successful in the past try to make a comeback. If they succeed, it is more efficient to say simply that they made a comeback than that they made a successful attempt of a comeback. But if they do not succeed, the word “attempt” is more appropriate. Hence the association of “attempt” with failure.

To sum up, Putin uses the encoded meaning of “attempt” to deny that Ukraine’s counter-offensive has been successful. He also exploits the connotation of this word to suggest (without directly claiming) that Ukraine’s counter-offensive is doomed.

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