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Biden accuses Putin of committing a 'genocide' in Ukraine

President Biden appeared to accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of a "genocide" in Ukraine on Tuesday as he spoke in Iowa about his administration's efforts to bring down spiking fuel prices.
Mandel Ukraine
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden appeared to accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of a "genocide" in Ukraine on Tuesday as he spoke in Iowa about his administration's efforts to bring down spiking fuel prices.

Updated April 12, 2022 at 7:34 PM ET

President Biden on Tuesday accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of committing a "genocide" in Ukraine. The president made the accusation in a speech at an ethanol fuel plant in Iowa, where he blamed the Russian invasion for higher gas prices.

"Your family budget, your ability to fill up your tank, none of it should hinge on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide a half a world away," he said.

Asked later what made him use the word "genocide," Biden replied, "Yes, I called it genocide. It has become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of even being — being able to be Ukrainian.

Biden said evidence against Putin and the Russian military was mounting.

"The — more evidence is coming out of the — literally, the horrible things that the Russians have done in Ukraine. And we're going to only learn more and more about the devastation," he said. "And we'll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies, but it sure seems that way to me."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reacted on Twitter to Biden's genocide remarks, saying that "Calling things by their names is essential to stand up to evil."

"We are grateful for US assistance provided so far," he continued, "and we urgently need more heavy weapons to prevent further Russian atrocities."

Asked about Biden's comment in an interview on MSNBC shortly following the president's speech, National Security Council communications adviser Matthew Miller said, "The president has never, since the beginning of this war in Ukraine, hesitated to call out the atrocities that we are seeing on the ground."

Miller said the escalation in rhetoric from previously accusing Russia of atrocities and war crimes did not indicate a shift in the U.S. response.

"Nothing is going to change with our response," he told MSNBC.

Miller noted that the U.S. is working with allies to investigate alleged war crimes, which he called a "long-term process."

Miller also said the president's position has not changed in terms of U.S. military involvement, saying the White House believes direct U.S. military engagement in Ukraine is not in the security interests of the U.S., European allies or Ukraine because of how it could widen the conflict.

The U.S. has historically been reluctant to use the word genocide. It was just last month that the U.S. used the word to refer to the widespread slaughter of civilians by military forces in Myanmar that began in 2016.

In those remarks, delivered outside of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that was only the eighth time in history that the U.S. had determined a genocide had occurred.

There are a number of reasons that Biden's use of the term has drawn attention, including its implication that Russian forces are committing the targeted slaughter of a specific group.

The Rome Statute, the treaty which established the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002, defines genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

Leila Sadat, an international law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who advises the International Criminal Court prosecutor on crimes against humanity, told NPR's Morning Edition Tuesday that she sees "evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes" by Russian forces in Ukraine, but that determining whether it formally qualifies as genocide is complex.

Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court would "actually have to show that [Russian forces are] committing all these terrible crimes in order to destroy, in part or in whole, the particular group," Sadat said. "Crimes against humanity are just as serious as genocide. There's no hierarchy here. Crimes against humanity is what the Nazis were charged with for the Holocaust."

Last month, the U.S. said that it will help to investigate any war crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine, though neither the United States nor Russia are signatories to the Rome Statute or members of the International Criminal Court.

The U.S. has broadly been hostile toward the ICC over its investigations of allies, including Israel, and refutes the notion that the court has jurisdiction over American citizens. The ICC has previously sought to investigate allegations of war crimes by the U.S. military and CIA in Afghanistan, a controversial probe which has ebbed and flowed under immense political pressure.

Any formal designation is likely to take years.

More than 1,800 civilians have been killed in Ukraine since Russia's invasion began on Feb. 24, according to the Office of the U.N High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The group has also documented nearly 2,500 injured civilians, though it says actual figures for civilian casualties are likely to be "considerably higher."

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Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.