US President Joe Biden has said his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin is committing “genocide” in Ukraine, where concerns are mounting over the killing of civilians and the prospects of a new Russian offensive in the country’s east.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday in Iowa about a plan to curb rising gas prices in the United States, Biden said: “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.”
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This is the first time that the US president, who previously said he believed Putin was a “war criminal”, has used the word “genocide” to describe events in Ukraine.
Biden later stood by his characterisation, saying Putin “is trying to wipe out the idea of being able to be Ukrainian”.
“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 said as he prepared to board Air Force One to return to Washington from Iowa.
“We’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies, but it sure seems that way to me,” he said.
Biden’s comments come just days after Ukraine accused Russian forces of attacking a train station in the eastern town of Kramatorsk, killing more than 50 people, and as images of bodies on the streets of towns near Kyiv continue to draw global condemnation.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy previously said atrocities committed in Bucha and other areas near the capital constitute “genocide”. Some European leaders also have levied the charge against Moscow, which has denied targeting civilians in its invasion.
But in line with longstanding protocol, the Biden administration had stopped short of using the term “genocide” because of its strict legal definition and the heavy implication the accusation carries.
Biden previously was asked by reporters whether the killings in Bucha amounted to “genocide”, and he replied: “No, I think it is a war crime.”
Experts have urged caution over using the word “genocide” to describe events in Ukraine, saying that an investigation into alleged human rights abuses must first be carried out.
“I think it merits investigating,” Juan Mendez, a former UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, recently told Al Jazeera. “It certainly would be a serious error to ignore the fact that many victims so far have been clearly civilians, possibly targeted because they are Ukrainians – that is a national origin, a condition that fits into the partial definition of genocide.
“But the fact that civilians die is not necessarily genocide.”
The UN’s Genocide Convention defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, including killings and measures to prevent births.
In late March, the US State Department said it had determined that some Russian forces had committed “war crimes” in Ukraine.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at that time that there had been numerous credible reports of “indiscriminate attacks and attacks deliberately targeting civilians” since Russia’s invasion began in late February.
It remains unclear what policy effect Biden’s use of the word “genocide” would have.
The US president has made a handful of statements about the war that officials have later had to walk back, including in a speech in Poland where he said that Putin should not be allowed to remain in power.
The administration later clarified that Washington was not seeking regime change.
Russia had summoned the US ambassador in Moscow over Biden’s earlier statement accusing Putin of being a “war criminal”, saying US-Russia relations were on the verge of “rupture”.