Stiffening tone, Biden accuses Putin of genocide in Ukraine for first time
US president says Russian leader ‘trying to wipe out the idea of even being a Ukrainian,’ but adds that lawyers will make final determination, which could trigger obligation to act
DES MOINES, Iowa — President Joe Biden on Tuesday said Russia’s war in Ukraine amounted to genocide,” accusing President Vladimir Putin of trying to “wipe out the idea of even being a Ukrainian.”
“Yes, I called it genocide,” he told reporters in Iowa shortly before boarding Air Force One to return to Washington. “It’s become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of even being a Ukrainian.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed Biden’s comments and called for more support.
“True words of a true leader @POTUS,” he tweeted. “Calling things by their names is essential to stand up to evil.”
At an earlier event in Menlo, Iowa, addressing spiking energy prices resulting from the war, Biden had implied that he thought Putin was carrying out genocide against Ukraine, but offered no details.
“Your family budget, your ability to fill up your tank — none of it should hinge on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide half a world away,” Biden said at the event in Iowa.
True words of a true leader @POTUS. Calling things by their names is essential to stand up to evil. We are grateful for US assistance provided so far and we urgently need more heavy weapons to prevent further Russian atrocities.
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) April 12, 2022
Neither Biden nor his administration announced new consequences for Russia or assistance to Ukraine following the public assessment.
Biden said it would be up to lawyers to decide if Russia’s conduct met the international standard for genocide, as Ukrainian officials have claimed, but said “it sure seems that way to me.”
“More evidence is coming out literally of the horrible things that the Russians have done in Ukraine, and we’re only going to learn more and more about the devastation and let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies,” he said.
Just last week Biden had he did not believe Russia’s actions amounted to genocide, just that they constituted “war crimes.”
During a trip to Europe last month, Biden faced controversy for a nine-word statement seemingly supporting regime change in Moscow, which would have represented a dramatic shift toward direct confrontation with another nuclear-armed country. “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden said.
He clarified the comments days later, saying: “I was expressing the moral outrage that I felt toward this man. I wasn’t articulating a policy change.”
Past American leaders often have dodged formally declaring bloody campaigns such as Russia’s in Ukraine as genocide, hesitating to trigger an obligation under an international genocide convention that requires signing countries to intervene once genocide is formally identified.
That obligation was seen as blocking President Bill Clinton from declaring Rwandan Hutus’ killing of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis in 1994 as genocide, for example.
Biden’s comments came as Ukrainian authorities raised concerns that Russia would use chemical weapons in its revamped onslaught on the eastern Donbas region.
In the face of stiff resistance by Ukrainian forces bolstered by Western weapons, Russian forces have increasingly relied on bombarding cities, flattening many urban areas and leaving thousands of people dead. The war has also driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes — including nearly two-thirds of all children.
Moscow’s retreat from cities and towns around the capital, Kyiv, led to the discovery of large numbers of apparently massacred civilians, prompting widespread condemnation and accusations that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine.
Reports have primarily focused on the northwestern suburbs such as Bucha, where the mayor said 403 bodies have been found. Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk feared the toll would rise as minesweepers comb through the area.
Ukraine’s prosecutor-general’s office said Tuesday that it was also looking into events in the Brovary district, which lies to the northeast.
The prosecutor’s office said the bodies of six civilians had been found with gunshot wounds in a basement in the village of Shevchenkove and that Russian forces were believed to be responsible.
Prosecutors are also investigating allegations that Russian forces fired on a convoy of civilians trying to leave by car from the village of Peremoha in the Brovary district, killing four people, including a 13-year-old boy. In another attack near Bucha, five people were killed, including two children, when a car was fired upon, prosecutors said.
Putin falsely claimed Tuesday that Ukraine’s accusation that hundreds of civilians were killed by Russian troops in the town of Bucha were “fake.” Associated Press reporters saw dozens of bodies in and around the town, some with hands bound who appeared to have been shot at close range.
In Mariupol, a strategic port city in the Donbas, a Ukrainian regiment defending a steel mill claimed a drone dropped a poisonous substance on the city. It indicated there were no serious injuries. The assertion by the Azov Regiment, a far-right group now part of the Ukrainian military, could not be independently verified.
It came after a Russia-allied separatist official appeared to urge the use of chemical weapons, telling Russian state TV on Monday that separatist forces should seize the plant by first blocking all the exits. “And then we’ll use chemical troops to smoke them out of there,” the official, Eduard Basurin, said. He denied Tuesday that separatist forces had used chemical weapons in Mariupol.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said officials were investigating, and it was possible phosphorus munitions — which cause horrendous burns but are not classed as chemical weapons — had been used in Mariupol.
Much of the city has been razed in weeks of pummeling by Russian troops. The mayor said Monday that the siege has left more than 10,000 civilians dead, their bodies “carpeted through the streets.” Mayor Vadym Boychenko said the death toll in Mariupol alone could surpass 20,000 and gave new details of allegations by Ukrainian officials that Russian forces have brought mobile cremation equipment to dispose of the corpses.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, acknowledged the challenges Ukrainian troops face in Mariupol. He said on Twitter that they remain blocked and are having issues with supplies, while Zelenskyy and Ukrainian generals “do everything possible (and impossible) to find a solution and help our guys.”
“For more than 1.5 months our defenders protect the city from (Russian) troops, which are 10+ times larger,” Podolyak said in a tweet. “They’re fighting under the bombs for each meter of the city. They make (Russia) pay an exorbitant price.”
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the use of chemical weapons “would be a callous escalation in this conflict,” while Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said it would be a “wholesale breach of international law.”