Assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland has admitted the US considers Russia's actions in Ukraine "an invasion", in what may be the first time a senior American official has used the term to describe a conflict that has killed more than 6,000 people.
Speaking before the House committee on foreign affairs, Nuland was asked by representative Brian Higgins about Russia's support of rebels in eastern Ukraine, through weapons, heavy armor, money and soldiers: "In practical terms does that constitute an invasion?"
Nuland at first replied that "we have made clear that Russia is responsible for fielding this war," until pressed by Higgins to answer "yes or no" whether it constitutes an invasion.
"We have used that word in the past, yes," Nuland said, apparently marking the first time a senior official has allowed the term in reference to Russia's interference in eastern Ukraine, and not simply its continued occupation of the Crimean peninsula.
Obama administration officials across departments have strenuously avoided calling the conflict an invasion for months, instead performing verbal contortions to describe an "incursion", "violation of territorial sovereignty" and an "escalation of aggression".
In November Vice-President Joe Biden, who has acted as one of Obama's primary liaisons with the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, rapidly corrected himself after breaking from the White House's careful language on CNN, saying "When the Russians invaded - crossed the border - into Ukraine, it was, 'My god. It's over.'"
Barack Obama has so far declined to use the term, as have US ambassadors, the secretary of state, John Kerry, and EU leaders such as the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. The leaders have probably avoided the word to prevent it from complicating already difficult diplomatic efforts, since it would probably exacerbate antagonistic rhetoric between the parties and diminish the Kremlin's will to compromise.
Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN warned in August that continued Russian intervention would "viewed as an invasion", but has not used the term since.
Major James Brindle, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to characterize Russia's actions as an invasion, using terms like "serious military escalation" and "blatant violation of international law".
"To be clear we care much less about what you call it, we've been focused on how to respond to it," he said.
The congressmen who grilled Nuland on American policy did not shy from their own heated rhetoric. Representative Ed Royce, the committee chair, not only said Russia had invaded Ukraine but said the Kremlin "has recruited every skinhead and every malcontent in the Russian-speaking world and tried to bring them into the east" of Ukraine.
Representative Eliot Engel accused Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, of spreading "lies, lies and more lies" and representative Albio Sires called the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, "a KGB thug who happens to be the head of another state".
Nearly all called for the US to immediately arm the Ukrainian government with "lethal defensive weapons", such as anti-tank guns and counter-artillery radar, to help combat an estimated 12,000 well-supplied Russians fighting with and coordinating rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Nuland refused to deviate from the administration's position that Obama has yet to decide about supplying Kyiv with weapons, and provided no timeline for that decision. Asked about what she thought would change Putin's behavior, Nuland said: "I can't speak to what's in President Putin's head, that's a place that I don't think I can go."
The assistant secretary said she supported the representatives call to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and boost its US-funded affiliates in eastern Europe and Russia, such as Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, in order to counter Russian propaganda abroad and at home. Royce said: "If we can't begin to change minds then the struggle over Ukraine today will become a generational struggle."
Royce and others angrily questioned Nuland, and were indignant that some sanctions would be lifted while Crimea will remain in Russian hands for the foreseeable future. "If you're Vladimir Putin how seriously do you take that?" representative Gerry Connolly asked.
But Nuland defended the Obama administration's strategy of financial support for Kyiv, as it struggles with corruption and financial chaos, and sanctions on Russia, saying that the State Department is in talks with EU leaders for another round of sanctions on Russia.
Only California representative Dana Rohrabacher broke with the tough talk of the committee, implying that Ukrainian revolutionaries "ignited this situation" by ousting President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. Rohrabacher has long carried on an iconoclastic defense of Putin, and said that the US should not seek "to humiliate Russia again and again and again".