LVIV, UKRAINE (REUTERS) – US President Joe Biden said for the first time that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine amounts to genocide, a stance supported by only Kyiv so far, and dismissed by the Kremlin on Wednesday (April 13) as "unacceptable".
Biden used the term genocide, a significant escalation of the president’s rhetoric, in a speech at an ethanol plant in Iowa and later stood by the description as he prepared to board Air Force One.
“Yes, I called it genocide because it has become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of being able to be Ukrainian and the evidence is mounting,” Biden told reporters on Tuesday.
“We’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies, but it sure seems that way to me.”
The Kremlin said on Wednesday it categorically disagreed with US President Biden’s description of Russia’s actions in Ukraine as “genocide”, and it accused Washington of hypocrisy.
“We consider this kind of effort to distort the situation unacceptable,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call with reporters. “This is hardly acceptable from a president of the United States, a country that has committed well-known crimes in recent times.”
Biden’s ally and French president Emmanuel Macron stopped short of calling it a genocide, reported the BBC. He said on Wednesday he was reluctant to use the term.
Speaking to public broadcaster France 2, Macron said he would be “careful with such terms today because these two peoples (Russians and Ukrainians) are brothers”.
“I want to continue to try, as much as I can, to stop this war and rebuild peace. I am not sure that an escalation of rhetoric serves that cause,” he added.
Biden has repeatedly called Putin a war criminal, but Tuesday was the first time he had accused Russia of genocide.
Under international law, genocide is an intent to destroy – in whole or in part – a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. According to United Nations convention, this includes through killings; serious bodily or mental harm; and inflicting lethal conditions and measures, to prevent births.
Biden has made a handful of statements about the war that US officials have later had to walk back. The president stirred controversy on a trip to Poland when he ad-libbed a line at the end of a speech and said Putin should not be allowed to remain in power.
The White House clarified US policy is not to seek regime change.
Genocide, the most serious international offence, was first used to describe the Nazi Holocaust after six million Jews were killed during World War II. It was established in 1948 as a crime under international law in a UN convention.
Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians and has said Ukrainian and Western allegations of war crimes are made up to discredit Russian forces.
Many of the towns Russia has retreated from in northern Ukraine were littered with the bodies of civilians killed in what Kyiv says was a campaign of murder, torture and rape.
The Kremlin says it launched a “special military operation” on Feb 24 to demilitarise and “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies reject that as a false pretext.
Moscow’s nearly seven-week long incursion, the biggest attack on a European state since 1945, has seen more than 4.6 million people flee abroad, killed or injured thousands and led to Russia’s near total isolation on the world stage.
Putin on Tuesday used his first public comments on the conflict in more than a week to say Russia would “rhythmically and calmly” continue its operation, and expressed confidence his goals, including on security, would be achieved.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky mocked Putin in an early morning address on Wednesday: “How could a plan that provides for the death of tens of thousands of their own soldiers in a little more than a month of war come about?”
Putin said that on-and-off peace negotiations “have again returned to a dead-end situation for us”.
During his comments, Putin frequently seemed to ramble or stammer. Only occasionally did he adopt the icy, confident demeanour that has been his trademark over more than 22 years as Russia’s leader.
Putin, who had been ubiquitous on Russian television in the early days of the war, had largely retreated from public view since Russia’s withdrawal from northern Ukraine two weeks ago.
Putin ally detained
Zelensky told Russia to release prisoners of war if it wants the Kremlin’s most high-profile political ally in the country freed.
Ukraine said that Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of the Opposition Platform – For Life party, had been apprehended.
In February, the authorities said he had escaped house arrest after a treason case was opened.
The politician who says Putin is godfather to his daughter has denied wrongdoing. A spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
“I propose to the Russian Federation: exchange this guy of yours for our guys and girls now held in Russian captivity,” Zelensky said in his address.
Alongside a photo of Medvedchuk in handcuffs, the head of Ukraine’s security service Ivan Bakanov said on Facebook that operatives “conducted this lightning-fast and dangerous multi-level special operation” to arrest him.
But Russia on Wednesday told Ukraine to “watch out”, turning down Kyiv’s offer of a swop with a warning that those holding him might soon be detained themselves.
“Those freaks who call themselves the Ukrainian authorities say that they want to beat testimony out of Viktor Medvedchuk,‘quickly and fairly’, convict him, and then exchange him for prisoners,” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, said.
“These people should watch out and lock the doors well at night to make sure they do not become the people who are going to be exchanged themselves,” said Medvedev, a close Putin ally who served as Russian president from 2008 to 2012.
Russia says it now aims to capture more territory on behalf of separatists in two eastern provinces, known as the Donbass. It includes Mariupol port, which has been reduced to a wasteland under Russian siege.
Ukraine says tens of thousands of civilians have been trapped inside that city with no way to bring in food or water, and accuses Russia of blocking aid convoys.
As Russia redoubles efforts in the east, Luhansk regional Governor Serhiy Gaidai urged residents to evacuate. “It’s far more scary to remain and burn in your sleep from a Russian shell,” he wrote on social media.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the eastern Donetsk region, which includes Mariupol, said he had seen incident reports on possible chemical weapons use in the city but could not confirm them.
The United States and Britain have said they were trying to verify the reports.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said it was closely monitoring the situation.
Chemical weapons production, use and stockpiling is banned under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.
Russia’s defence ministry has not responded to a Reuters request for comment. Russian-backed separatist forces in the east denied using chemical weapons in Mariupol, the Interfax news agency reported.
The United States is expected to announce $750 million (S$1 billion) more in military assistance, two officials told Reuters, likely including heavy ground artillery systems to Ukraine, including howitzers, in a sign the war is expected to drag on.
Genocide, considered the most serious international offence, was first used to describe the Nazi Holocaust. It was established in 1948 as a crime under international law in a United Nations convention.
Since the end of the Cold War, the State Department has formally used the term seven times. These were to describe massacres in Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq and Darfur; the Islamic State’s attacks on Yazidis and other minorities; China’s treatment of Uighurs and other Muslims and this year over the Myanmar army’s persecution of the Rohingya minority.
China denies the genocide claims.
At the State Department, such a determination normally follows a meticulous internal process. Still, the final decision is up to the secretary of state, who weighs whether the move would advance American interests, officials said.