US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Russia of committing war crimes in Ukraine, echoing comments by President Joe Biden who had labelled his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin a “war criminal“.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Blinken said Department of State experts are in the process of documenting and evaluating potential war crimes in Ukraine to help international efforts towards accountability, but he said it is apparent that Russia is committing abuses in the conflict.
“Yesterday, President Biden said that – in his opinion – war crimes have been committed in Ukraine. Personally, I agree,” Blinken told reporters.
“Intentionally targeting civilians is a war crime. After all the destruction of the past three weeks, I find it difficult to conclude that the Russians are doing otherwise.”
Biden had angered the Kremlin on Wednesday when he called Putin a “war criminal” – a comment that Moscow rebuked as “unacceptable and unforgivable rhetoric”. On Thursday, the US president also described his Russian counterpart as a “murderous dictator” and a “pure thug”.
Meanwhile, at the Department of State, Blinken pledged to ensure accountability for abuses in Ukraine.
“When I tell you that there will be accountability and consequences for any war crimes that have been committed, I hope you’ll take my word,” the top US diplomat told reporters. “But actions always speak louder than words.”
Russia launched an all-out invasion of Ukraine on February 24 after a months-long standoff that saw Moscow amass troops near the Ukrainian borders as it demanded an end to NATO expansion into former Soviet republics.
The war has forced more than 3.1 million people to flee Ukraine, according to the United Nations, and devastated areas across the country. Major cities, including the capital Kyiv, have faced Russian bombardment and siege.
On Thursday, Ukrainian officials said a Russian attack killed 21 people in the town of Merefa outside the city of Kharkiv in the east of the country. A day earlier, Ukraine accused Russian forces of bombing a theatre sheltering civilians in the besieged southern city of Mariupol.
Three weeks into the invasion, US officials have said Russia continues to face military and logistic setbacks in its campaign amid fierce Ukrainian resistance.
Blinken said on Thursday that Russia may stage a chemical attack to escalate the war, noting that Washington accurately predicted the invasion weeks before it started.
“We believe that Moscow may be setting the stage to use a chemical weapon, and then falsely blame Ukraine to justify escalating its attacks on the Ukrainian people,” Blinken told reporters.
The top US diplomat also said Washington believes that Moscow will bring in mercenaries from foreign countries to fight in the conflict. He added that Russia will “systematically” kidnap local Ukrainian officials to replace them “with puppets”.
The US and its allies were quick to impose sweeping sanctions on the Russian economy, as well as financial penalties on Putin and elites in his inner circle after the invasion.
Washington has also stepped up military and humanitarian support to Kyiv. After signing a US budget containing $13.6bn in assistance to Ukraine, Biden announced $800m in additional military aid to the country this week.
On Thursday, Blinken called on “all nations” to use any leverage they may have with Russia to get it to end the war, singling out China in his remarks.
“We believe China, in particular, has a responsibility to use its influence with President Putin and to defend the international rules and principles that it professes to support,” Blinken said.
During the past week, US officials have threatened China with “consequences” if it comes to Russia’s aid in Ukraine amid media reports that Moscow requested military assistance from Beijing.
Blinken, in advance of a call between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday, reiterated those warnings, saying that Washington is “concerned” that Beijing may be considering helping Moscow’s war efforts.
“President Biden will be speaking to President Xi tomorrow and will make clear that China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression, and we will not hesitate to impose costs,” he told reporters.
In public statements, China has backed diplomatic efforts to end the war, but it has not condemned the invasion. It also abstained from votes at the UN Security Council and General Assembly calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.
While backing diplomatic efforts to secure a ceasefire, Blinken said on Thursday that Moscow does not appear to be serious about ending the war.
“Diplomacy requires both sides engaging in good faith to de-escalate, and I don’t see signs right now that Putin is prepared to stop,” Blinken said.
Blinken also confirmed that an American citizen has been killed in Ukraine without offering further details.
The US Department of State has repeatedly advised Americans against going to Ukraine – including to volunteer in the fight against Russian forces – while also urging US citizens already in the country to leave immediately.