It was the harshest condemnation of Putin’s actions from any US official since the war in Ukraine began three weeks ago. Previously, Biden stopped short of calling the atrocities documented on the ground in Ukraine “war crimes,” citing ongoing international and US investigations.
But on Wednesday, while speaking to reporters at an unrelated event, Biden placed the label on the Russian leader.
“I believe he is a war criminal,” the president said after remarks at the White House.
However, Biden acknowledged the atrocities taking place on the ground.
“We have seen reports that Russian forces are holding hundreds of doctors and patients hostage in the largest hospital in Mariupol,” Biden said. “These are atrocities. It is outrage for the world. The world is united in our support for Ukraine and our determination to make Putin pay a very heavy price.”
It wasn’t until a few hours later that Biden responded to a question about Putin being a war criminal. Biden initially said “no,” but immediately returned to a group of reporters to explain what had been brought up. When asked again if Putin was a war criminal, he answered in the affirmative.
On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Biden’s comments were “totally unacceptable and unforgivable.”
In Poland last week, Vice President Kamala Harris called for international investigations into war crimes, and made clear she believed atrocities were underway. It said the deliberate targeting of civilians would constitute war crimes.
After Biden gave his assessment, the White House said the administration’s war crimes investigation would continue.
“The president’s comments speak for themselves,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. She said Biden was “speaking from the heart”.
State Department spokesman Ned Price echoed Psaki’s voice later Wednesday, telling CNN’s Erin Burnett on “OutFront” that “when you speak from the heart, and you speak like a human being and you see what we’ve all seen, these incendiary images on TV.” , a Russian raid on a maternity hospital in Mariupol and strikes on residential buildings, schools and civilian neighborhoods, it is difficult not to abandon this conclusion. ”
“What we do here at the State Department, we collect every bit of information, we evaluate it, we document it and we share it with our partners. There’s a process involved in this and there are people working almost around the clock to document, evaluate and share because we’re all watching what’s going on with some horror.”
Pressured to find out how Putin’s actions do not currently amount to war crimes, Price reiterated that “there is a formal process here in the department under international humanitarian law to document war crimes. We are involved in that.”
While the term “war crimes” is often used colloquially – as Biden appears to be doing on Wednesday – they have a legal definition that could be used for potential prosecution. This includes the Geneva Convention, which defines the intentional targeting of civilians as a war crime.
However, in order to prosecute a war crime, strong evidence is needed. For Russian officials to be held accountable, they would have to travel outside the country.
Nevertheless, the official classification of war crimes – backed by evidence – will still provide the West with a symbolic tool in framing Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
Biden has come under increasing pressure to do more to help embattled Ukrainians as the Russian campaign intensifies. On Wednesday, a theater in Mariupol where civilians were sheltering was bombed, in the latest example of indiscriminate Russian bombing.
The pressure was likely to increase after Zelensky’s dramatic appeal to lawmakers for more help. Compare what is happening in Ukraine to Pearl Harbor and 9/11, and he said “we need you now” to provide more support.
Biden saw the address from his own home library, later calling it a “compelling” and “important” letter.
“Putin is wreaking horrific destruction and terror in Ukraine, bombing apartment buildings, maternity wards and hospitals,” he said afterwards. “I mean, that’s my appreciation.”
Next week, Biden plans to travel to Brussels for an extraordinary session of NATO leaders, where he hopes to demonstrate Western unity amid Russian aggression.
This story has been updated with additional reports.