DES MOINES — President Biden on Tuesday referred to Russia as committing a “genocide” in Ukraine, a significant escalation of the president’s rhetoric and a notable shift that comes as U.S. officials have avoided using the term, which suggests an effort to wipe out all or part of a specific group.
Biden’s initial comment came at an event in Menlo, Iowa, where he was decrying the effects of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on the higher prices Americans are paying for gas and food.
“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,” Biden said.
He later told reporters he intentionally used the word genocide in his speech, though he added that he would “let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies.” But he said, “It sure seems that way to me.”
The United Nations defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
Biden suggested that is exactly what Russia is doing as it commits atrocities in Ukraine, including what evidence suggests was a slaughter of unarmed civilians in the town of Bucha. The president described Russia’s actions as going far beyond a military campaign against an adversary, saying it is rather an organized effort to erase Ukraine’s identity as an independent nation.
“It’s become clearer and clearer that Putin is trying to wipe out the idea of being Ukrainian,” Biden said. “The evidence is mounting. It looks different than last week. More evidence is coming out literally of the horrible things that the Russians have done in Ukraine.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has repeatedly decried Moscow’s actions against his country and appealed for international help, praised Biden’s comments, saying they were the “true words of a true leader.”
“Calling things by their names is essential to stand up to evil,” Zelensky wrote on Twitter. “We are grateful for US assistance provided so far and we urgently need more heavy weapons to prevent further Russian atrocities.”
By contrast, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, had both stopped short of describing Russia’s assault as a genocide in recent days. No official agency of the United States has made a determination that Russia’s brutalities qualify as a genocide.
“Based on what we have seen so far, we have seen atrocities,” Sullivan said last week. “We have seen war crimes. We have not seen a level of systematic deprivation of life of the Ukrainian people to rise to the level of genocide.”
Biden’s comments Tuesday are the latest example of the president seemingly getting ahead of his own White House in condemning Putin and the war in Ukraine. He often appears torn between his desire to denounce the brutal onslaught and the fact that certain terms have legal definitions that can trigger specific actions.
In mid-March, he called Putin a “war criminal” after weeks of avoiding the term, and at a time when his administration was still determining whether that label officially applied. Since then, administration officials have become more open about calling the atrocities in Ukraine war crimes.
Then, during a trip to Warsaw to bolster the NATO alliance, Biden ad-libbed at the end of a speech and seemingly called for a regime change in Russia, a notion that was and is not the policy of the U.S. government.
“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden said. The White House quickly cleaned up the comments and Biden later said he was not “articulating a policy change” but rather expressing his “moral outrage” at Putin’s actions.
The term “genocide” was first used by the Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin in 1944 to describe the Nazi effort to eradicate the Jews during the Holocaust, and was codified as an international crime in the Genocide Convention of 1948. Russia is among the roughly 150 parties to the convention, which seeks to prevent and punish genocide.
A perpetrator’s intent in carrying out killings can be the hardest element to prove, international law experts say, since there can be many reasons to commit violence against members of a group without the goal of eradicating it. Massacres in Cambodia in the 1970s, in Rwanda in 1994 and in Bosnia in the 1990s are among the outbreaks of killing since World War II that have been considered genocides.
Under the United Nations definition, a genocide can be accomplished by anything from killing members of the group directly to inflicting unbearable conditions on them to forcibly transferring their children.
Some analysts have pointed to comments like those published by the Russian state-run news agency RIA-Novosti as potential evidence of Russia’s intent. One recent article, as reported in the Guardian, declared that “Ukrainianism is an artificial anti-Russian construct that has no civilizational substance of its own, a subordinate element of an extraneous and alien civilization.” It said the name “Ukraine” should be abolished.
Russian forces have dramatically escalated the brutality of their attacks in Ukraine in recent weeks, with the scale of killings and depravity becoming clear in places like Bucha, near the capital, Kyiv. Investigators there have uncovered evidence of torture before death, beheading and dismemberment, and the intentional burning of corpses. Mass graves have been discovered.
Ukraine is also bracing for Russia to launch a new offensive in the eastern part of the country amid fresh concerns about Moscow launching a chemical weapons attack, something that is also prohibited by an international convention that Russia has signed. The Chemical Weapons Convention is enforced by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international body based in The Hague.
Putin said Tuesday that his invasion of Ukraine is going as planned and vowed to continue the war. In a rare news conference, the Russian leader said he had “no choice” but to invade Ukraine, and he added that negotiations with the country — which some participants had described not long ago as making progress — had reached an “impasse.”
Biden’s comments Tuesday were unexpected not only because his administration has carefully avoided calling the Ukraine war a genocide, but also because his speech was on an entirely different topic. The president, appearing in Iowa, was discussing his plans to keep gas prices down.
He has increasingly taken to calling the current price surge “Putin’s Price Hike,” and it was in that context that he describe the Russian president’s actions as a genocide.
Meanwhile, Biden is working to keep the pressure on Russia and to keep the Western alliance unified.
The United States is expected to significantly expand its military assistance to Ukraine with a new aid package that could be worth $750 million, U.S. officials said Tuesday. The Pentagon is planning to send armored Humvees, Mi-17 helicopters that can be equipped to attack Russian vehicles, armored Humvees and a range of other equipment.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that the U.S. believes that Russia will continue to try to overwhelm Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine and that the current stage of the conflict “could last a long time.”
“We expect Russia will continue to launch air and missile strikes across the rest of the country to cause military and economic damage, to cause terror,” Psaki said, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One.
Biden’s visit to Iowa, his first domestic trip outside of Washington or his home state of Delaware in more than a month, came as the president and Democrats seek to respond to rising prices that have become a growing political problem for the country. The latest inflation report Tuesday found that prices rose 8.5 percent compared with a year ago, the largest annual increase since December 1981, with energy prices spiking in large part because of the Ukraine war.
“I’m doing everything within my power, by executive orders, to bring down the prices and address the Putin price hike,” Biden said.
The president also announced that the Environmental Protection Agency will allow a gasoline blend known as E15, which is 15 percent ethanol, to be sold over the summer — a measure cheered by corn and soybean farmers who say it will reduce gas costs but long resisted by some energy and environmental groups.