Letter From the Editors

Things are coming to a head for Russia in its deteriorating relations with both the US and Ukraine. In reporting on bilateral relations with both countries, Russian news outlets have repeatedly used the term obostreniye, a word that most closely correlates to the English “exacerbation.”

While the English word is a somewhat obscure Latinate formation, speakers of Slavic languages can easily recognize the root of the Russian word, ostry: “sharp” (like a knife).

The knives have been out in US-Russia relations for some time, but they have been growing sharper in the ongoing ruckus over Joe Biden’s “killer” interview with George Stephanopoulos and the new round of sanctions that shortly followed. Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov called the faux pas an “unprecedented exacerbation of bilateral relations.”

Commentators find it handy to summarize the Biden administration’s actions with the word “exacerbate” because it is serious, but not as violent or legally concrete as “provoke” or “destabilize.” Scholar Pavel Sharikov, while emphasizing the potential for US-Russia cooperation overall, explains that Russia needed to recall its ambassador to the US because Biden had exacerbated the situation: “It’s complicated for us to respond to this, because there must always be parity in relations with the US, and it’s difficult to come up with a reaction that’s equivalent to what Biden said.”

In other words, the incident left a bad taste in Russians’ mouths. A subtle gustatory connotation adds weight to obostreniye. Because certain foods cause your mouth to feel like it has open cuts, the Russian adjective ostry also came to mean “spicy.” “Exacerbate” took the opposite metaphorical path, starting with the Latin root for another strong, unpleasant flavor (in this case “bitter,” as in “acerbic”), which people then applied to the sensation of being cut with a sharp object. English speakers more often think of pain as bitter, but they can easily imagine an international dispute suddenly growing too hot to handle.

Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky, responding to the death of four soldiers near the contact line in the Donetsk Basin, said, “What was rebuilt with such difficulty, bit by bit for almost a year, may have been destroyed in a second. The exacerbation of the situation is especially noticeable in contrast with the first months of the ceasefire.”

Ukrainian analyst Sergei Gaidai, in turn, explains to a Russian audience Zelensky’s increasing pressure on the Crimea: “Any Ukrainian government, any president will be doomed to exacerbate the situation.” After all, losing control over the Crimea was an extremely bitter pill to swallow.

In the most literal, clinical sense, both “exacerbation” and obostreniye mean the worsening of symptoms from an underlying disease. The apparent exacerbation of Aleksei Navalny’s illness looms large in the Kremlin’s disputes, both foreign and domestic. As doctors circulated an open letter demanding better medical care for the oppositionist, the Nezavisimaya gazeta editorial staff went so far as to suggest a kind of medical exile for him in the West as a solution palatable to Russian leadership. Navalny’s choice to begin a dangerous hunger strike for better treatment indicates (in the words of one of his advisers) “that he believes he has nothing to lose, and that the situation is unbearable.”

Not every area of the Kremlin’s dealings is growing hotter and more painful. At a Valdai Club conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov elaborated on his recent efforts to rebuild relations in the Middle East and mediate some of the region’s ongoing disputes. As Russia continues its budding reconciliation with the Persian Gulf states, Lavrov sees Russian-Turkish relations, which have weathered several deadly incidents, as an example: “We appreciate our relations because we can always find a solution with our Turkish colleagues that suits us both.” If only every conflict could find a mutually palatable solution.