'Finlandisation' and more Ukraine crisis-related terms you need to know

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language

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By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Fri 6 May 2022, 2:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 10 May 2022, 2:01 PM

A few weeks ago, we discussed a number of Ukraine-specific usage issues prompted by the tragic war in that country. But readers have enquired about other words emerging from the extensive media discussions of the conflict, with which they were not familiar earlier.

What, one reader asks, is “Finlandisation”? This is the term many are suggesting could appease Russian anger at Ukraine’s alleged desire to join Nato. It refers to the policies followed by Finland, which managed to preserve its independence despite the proximity of the powerful Soviet Union by pledging neutrality in foreign policy, refusing to join Nato or any alliance that could have been seen as hostile to the USSR, and taking care to defer to Moscow on any issue that mattered enough to its superpower neighbour. As a result, it never provoked Russia into the kind of belligerent action that has now been inflicted on Ukraine.

“Why are the Ukrainians hurling javelins at the Russians?” another reader asks. “I thought they would have more sophisticated weaponry?” The javelin is, in fact, a pretty sophisticated weapon. It’s not the spear-tipped rod hurled by Olympians but the nickname of an American anti-tank weapon. You’re reading a lot of references to javelins because with the Russians moving in with tanks, the javelin has become a potent symbol of Ukrainian resistance.

Who or what is the “siloviki”, and is it edible, asks one. Siloviki’s a Russian word referring to the Russian President’s “inner circle”. The siloviki are his most trusted advisers and, at least according to Western media, are mainly people who served, as President Putin once did, in the dreaded secret service, the KGB.

And the “oligarchs”? That’s an English word applied very deliberately to a handful of very privileged Russians. The word oligarchy translates as “government by a small group of people” but in regard to Russia, the term has a very specific connotation. When the formerly Communist Soviet Union, in which all businesses were owned by the government, divested itself of its major holdings, the fruits of this privatisation went to a handful of businessmen, many of them cronies of the new rulers of Russia. Market liberalisation created a group of new businessmen who got their starts running what used to be state enterprises. Though they subsequently built them up into legitimate private sector behemoths, their association with the government continued, since their prosperity depended on not crossing the authorities. They were dubbed the “oligarchs”.

So do oligarchs participate in “friend-shoring”? No, they don’t — they’re not those kinds of friends! “Friend-shoring, also called “ally-shoring”, is an American term defined as a commitment by Washington to work with countries that have a strong adherence to a set of norms and values that the US upholds, about how to operate in the global economy and about how to run the global economic system. The Ukraine conflict has led to calls on the US to promote the “decoupling” of Western, and in particular European, economies from Russia, by helping these economies or “shoring” them up. For instance, the US is attempting to wean European countries off their dependence on Russian oil and gas by finding them alternative supplies, or increasing American shipments of the same commodities. That’s “friend-shoring”.

And finally, what’s with all the references to the letter “Z”? The innocuous final letter of our alphabet has been transmuted into a symbol of support for the Russian invasion. A large white Z has been seen painted on a number of Russian military vehicles and even tanks. Those wishing to express support and sympathy for the Russians have followed suit, painting a Z on their vehicles or waving flags with a big Z on them. Don’t make the mistake, as one innocent did, of assuming that Z stands for Zelensky, the Ukrainian President who is the leader of his country’s resistance to the Russian invasion. It stands for his enemies.


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