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Biden’s blunt comments on Ukraine can veer from U.S. policy

Biden ad-libbed this week that Russia’s actions in Ukraine constitute a ‘genocide.’ Meanwhile, the State Department is in the midst of a painstaking process to decide if that’s in fact the case.

President Biden talked about why he called the war in Ukraine a "genocide" on April 12. "It sure seems that way to me," he said. (Video: The Washington Post)
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President Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal,” although U.S. officials had not made that legal determination. During his trip to Europe last month, he seemingly urged regime change in an ad-libbed line at the conclusion of a speech in Warsaw, then clarified he was expressing “moral outrage” rather than articulating American policy.

Then on Tuesday, the president once again veered from his prepared remarks, labeling Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine a “genocide,” despite top U.S. officials saying last week they had not yet seen evidence of actions meeting that definition, and even though a legal review on the matter has not been completed.

Biden’s off-the-cuff comment marked the latest example of the tension between his often-emotional response to Putin’s brutal war and the international implications of a president’s words. Throughout his political career, Biden has cultivated a reputation for unscripted candor, a trait allies laud as humanizing but adversaries deride as undisciplined.

“I’m impressed by the fact that if he’s horrified and moved by what he’s witnessing, as we all are, that he doesn’t couch it in nice language,” said Harold Koh, who served as legal adviser at the State Department during the Obama administration. “He says what he thinks it is. I’d rather have more politicians be more candid than be more clever with their words.”

But in the midst of the largest land war in Europe since World War II, Biden’s tendency to deviate from official U.S. policy has the potential to complicate efforts to end the conflict and confuse allies and partners, some diplomats say.

Asked about Biden’s comment, French President Emmanuel Macron warned Wednesday that an “escalation of rhetoric” could impede efforts to “stop this war and rebuild peace.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki faced questions Wednesday on how allies are expected to know when Biden is expressing U.S. policy and when he is simply voicing his personal views. She framed Biden’s genocide remark as evidence of his honesty.

“When the president ran, he promised the American people he would shoot from the shoulder … and tell it to them straight,” she said. “His comments yesterday, not once but twice, on war crimes, are an exact reflection of that. I don’t think anyone is confused about the atrocities we’re seeing on the ground, the horrors we’re seeing on the ground.”

She added, “The president was speaking to what we all see, to what he feels is clear as day.”

On April 13, White House press secretary Jen Psaki stood by President Biden's use of the word “genocide” when describing Russia's ongoing war on Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)

But that reaction is at odds with the State Department’s painstaking process for reaching a genocide determination, which among other things requires clear documentation that the perpetrators intended to wipe out a group in whole or in part. Last month, for example, Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that the slaughter of the Rohingya by the Burmese military was a genocide.

Blinken described how the department had combed through detailed reports by an array of independent sources.

“Given the gravity of this determination, it was also important that this administration conduct its own analysis of the facts and the law,” Blinken said. He added, “Percentages, numbers, patterns, intent: these are critically important to reach the determination of genocide.”

Biden, however, did not appear to rely on any of those. “The president was calling it like he sees it, and that’s what he does,” Psaki said.

A genocide designation by the U.S. government does not automatically trigger any particular action. But it can add pressure on the U.S. to intervene before it’s ready, diplomats say, and can force the accused into a more defiant stance. Beyond that, they add, a rigorous process ensures that the grave term is not used loosely.

State Department officials said Wednesday they are not now declaring a genocide in Ukraine. Rather, they are helping with the global effort to document evidence of alleged war crimes to see if that “legal threshold [of genocide] is met,” said department spokesman Ned Price.

The process of declaring a genocide is arduous and can take months, Koh said, adding that the State Department must work with intelligence agencies in the United States and abroad to determine whether war crimes were committed “with the intent to destroy the Ukrainian people as a whole.” The agency will eventually produce a lengthy report in which it concludes with varying levels of confidence whether a genocide occurred.

“Intent is hard to prove because you need some sort of smoking gun — a memo or directive or unclassified telephone call saying something like ‘Kill them all,'” Koh said. He added that Biden is “perfectly entitled to say as a matter of personal belief that he believes that Putin has that intent, but I think that’s different from saying that the United States has the evidence that it could prove that case beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.”

The United Nations defines genocide as an attempt to destroy, in part or in whole, an ethnic, racial, religious or national group. Russia has carried out a brutal campaign of killings throughout Ukraine, and investigators have uncovered evidence of torture before death, beheading and dismemberment, and the intentional burning of corpses in towns like Bucha.

Human rights advocates say the extended genocide investigation should not infer with broader efforts to hold Russia responsible.

“There needs to be accountability for mass atrocity,” said Adam Keith, director of accountability at Human Rights First. “Genocide is one type of mass atrocity, and the Genocide Convention has complicated standards. It’s hard to prove.”

Since World War II, the United States has only made eight formal declarations of genocide, including a determination that Turkey’s killing of Armenians during World War I qualified. In a reflection of the label’s volatility, Turkish leaders spent decades trying to avoid having it applied to the century-old events.

One question is whether Biden’s heartfelt declaration might influence the official process.

“Once the president of the United States has said that it looks like genocide to him, that does put a lot of pressure on the State Department and the lawyers in particular, to reach that same conclusion,” said John B. Bellinger, III, who served as legal adviser to the State Department in George W. Bush’s administration.

He added: “I don’t think that the president was off base. He certainly did get ahead of the formal State Department process, but that’s not the first time that this has happened.”

Biden first referred to Russia’s war in Ukraine as a genocide Tuesday afternoon at an event in Menlo, Iowa, as he assailed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine for its impact on rising 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.

White House officials were caught off guard, as they did not anticipate Biden to make such an important declaration during a speech about ethanol in Iowa. But as officials were flooded with inquiries from reporters, Biden and his aides decided he would make it clear he intended to make the comment and that it reflected his personal belief.

Before boarding Air Force One back to Washington, Biden told reporters he would “let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies.” But he said, “It sure seems that way to me.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky immediately praised Biden’s remark, writing on Twitter, “Calling things by their names is essential to stand up to evil.”

On Wednesday, Psaki vigorously defended Biden’s comments — and their timing.

“He’s the president of the United States and the leader of the free world, and he’s allowed to make his views known at any point he would like,” Psaki said.