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.”
Biden’s comments drew praise from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had encouraged Western leaders to use the term to describe Russia’s invasion of his country.
“True words of a true leader @POTUS,” he tweeted. “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.”
A United Nations treaty, to which the U.S. is a party, defines genocide as actions taken with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
Past American leaders often have dodged formally declaring bloody campaigns such as Russia’s in Ukraine as genocide, hesitating to trigger an obligation that under international convention 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 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.”
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.”