A UK Ministry of Defence 'Intelligence Update' posted on Twitter on October 29, 2022, includes the following bullet point:

  • In the Russian national identity, [Prince Grigory] Potemkin is heavily associated with the Russian conquest of Ukrainian lands in the 18th century and highlights the weight Putin almost certainly places on perceived historical justification for the invasion. This symbolic removal [of Potemkin's remains from a tomb in Kherson, Ukraine] and the civilian exodus likely pre-empts Russian intent to expedite withdrawal from the area.

Presumably, "Russian withdrawal" here refers to withdrawal of Russian military forces from Kherson city and the portion of Kherson oblast that lies north and west of the Dnieper River. But the intended meaning of "pre-empts" in this post is unclear to me.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition (2011) offers the following entry for preempt (along with illustrative examples, which I do not reproduce here):

preempt v. —tr. 1. To take the place of or take precedence over[.] 2a. To take action to prevent (an event or other action) from happening; forestall[.] b. To take action to prevent (another) from acting. 3a. To acquire or take for oneself before others; appropriate[.] b. To gain possession of by prior right or opportunity, especially to settle on (public land) so as to obtain the right to buy before others. —intr. Games To make a preemptive bid in bridge.

It isn't clear to me why removing the bones of Prince Potemkin from Kherson would supplant or take the place of an intent to have Russian forces speed up their withdrawal from the area (definition 1) or prevent or forestall the intent to withdraw them quickly (definition 2a). Nevertheless, those two definitions seem more likely to fit the context of the MoD post than any of the others that AHDEL lists.

On the other hand, the Ukraine Live blogger at The Guardian, in an item reporting (and quoting) the Ministry of Defence post, seems to read the post as indicating that the removal of Potemkin's remains makes an expedited Russian withdrawal from the area more likely:

Moscow is “likely” planning an expedited withdrawal from Kherson city, according to the latest intelligence update from the UK Ministry of Defence.

The only way to reach this conclusion, it seems to me, is by understanding pre-empts in the MoD post as meaning something like "presages" or "signals" or "indicates"—a meaning that (as far as I know) doesn't exist in U.S. English usage.

My primary question: Is "presage, signal, or indicate" a current meaning of pre-empt in British English usage?

Secondarily: If pre-empt doesn't have this meaning in current British English, can you tell from the context in which the verb appears whether the Ministry of Defence post used the wrong word but the Guardian blogger understood the intended meaning correctly, or whether, contrarily, the MoD post used "pre-empts" in one of its more established meanings—probably either definition (1) or definition (2a) of the AHDEL entry—but the Guardian blogger misinterpreted its meaning?

  • 2
    Just for your awareness, the OED does not (yet??) document this verb as ever having that peculiar sense it appears to take in the cited MoD twittering. Rather, they provide only such senses as you mention or would expect to find.
    – tchrist
    Oct 29, 2022 at 22:12
  • The fleeing (of pro-Russian citizens?) may be pre-emptive, but it doesn't pre-empt the likely Russian withdrawal - it pre-empts any reprisals, confiscations, and evictions which might occur subsequent to the withdrawal.
    – Phil Sweet
    Oct 29, 2022 at 22:30
  • Unfortunately, you cannot rely on the MOD to write perfect English.
    – Greybeard
    Oct 30, 2022 at 18:28
  • FWIW: As a non-native but allegedly proficient speaker, I would read the MoD's tweet the other way around: The removal of Potemkin's remains was seen as a provocation, which combined with the civilian exodus (seen, perhaps, as an opportunity to resume war without being condemned for civilian casualties) resulted in a change of plans by the Russians. Would such a parsing be absurd? More importantly, though, how can an intent be pre-empted? Wouldn't either the MoD's or the Guardian's mistake be much more lucid if the tweet just read "...pre-empts the acceleration of Russian withdrawal..."?
    – m.a.a.
    Nov 14, 2022 at 19:35
  • Pre-empting is casually known as heading them off at the pass. I pick up that you want X, and I suggest "Let's do X." Or I serve some food to pre-empt your suggestion of a restaurant. Because I presage something from you or just out there, such as a signal, I act in a way that pre-empts the coming action. But inferring the signal and anticipating it are built into my action. Dec 27, 2022 at 1:47

1 Answer 1


What an interesting question. Superstitious people do strange things in fraught (and faught) situations. The 'bones of Potempkin' should surely remind someone of another set of bones involved in a war:

The Bones of Orestes, cited by the first ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, who in Book 1.68 of his Histories reports a Delphic oracle, foretelling that the Spartan army would not be able to defeat its rival neighbour, Tegea, unless they had possession of the bones of the son of King Agamemnon of Mycenae and leader of the war against Troy. This tale has an uncanny similarity to the Russian removal of the bones of Potemkin. Putin has a known obsession with the history of Prince Potemkin. it might just possible that the reason for removing the bones of Potempkin does pre-empt one thing: the possession of them by the Ukrainians.

This use of this word 'pre-empt' is surely a malapropism. removing the bones did not pre-empt the Russian withdrawal itself. No other action by any other party is mentioned that might have been 'pre-empted' by this removal. Perhaps the truth is Putin could not bear the idea that Russians would in future be unable to visit what to Putin is a shrine to the very essence of what he has been fighting for would be too unbearable. Perhaps, though it is hard to believe in the 21st century, there really is a Delphic superstition involved. But the usage of 'pre-empt' is not Putin's but that of the British Ministry of Defence.

  • Maybe they intended presaged? Jan 13 at 4:37
  • @ CONCRETE GANNET Yes, that is possible.
    – Tuffy
    Jan 13 at 14:17

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