Three weeks into Russia’s internationally condemned invasion of neighboring Ukraine, Biden’s comment marks the first time the American president has used the harsh term to describe Putin. There is a formal process for the United States to deem Putin a war criminal – a process White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday was underway at the State Department.
But Biden’s comment — “I think he is a war criminal” — a response to a direct question by a reporter after an event the president held to herald the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, marks a diplomatic turning point.
“The president’s remarks speak for themselves,” Psaki told reporters. “He was speaking from his heart and speaking from what you’ve seen on television, which is a barbaric action by a brutal dictator through his invasion of a foreign country.”
Psaki said that “there is a legal process that is ongoing. The State Department has oversight over that.”
The United Nations defines war crimes as willful killing; torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments; willfully causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or health; extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly; compelling a prisoner of war or other protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile power; willfully depriving a prisoner of war or other protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial; unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement, and taking of hostages.
Putin’s invasion has resulted in many civilian casualties – including, Zelenskyy told Congress on Wednesday, more than 100 children – as well as attacks on civilian targets. Ukraine has said that Russia seized control of a Mariupol hospital Tuesday, taking both doctors and patients hostage.
The Senate on Tuesday voted unanimously to declare Putin a war criminal. Last month, Karim Khan, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, said he would open an investigation of possible war crimes committed by Putin. The United States participated in negotiations that led to the creation of the ICC but in 1998 was one of seven countries – including China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar and Yemen – that voted against the Rome Statute establishing the court.
The administration of Donald Trump was particularly hostile to the ICC, in September 2020 imposing economic sanctions and visa restrictions on prosecutors and officials of the court. In April 2021, Biden lifted those sanctions, but the United States has not recognized the jurisdiction of the court.
Showing a wrenching video of Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities and civilians, Zelenskyy in his appeal to Congress pleaded for a no-fly zone to stop Putin’s air assault on his country. But Zelenskyy, aware of the Biden administration’s refusal to engage U.S. troops in Ukraine itself, delivered a separate wish list for war planes and additional military equipment.
Biden, in far more dispassionate remarks, decried the “godawful” behavior of the Russian autocrat and said Putin will “pay a very heavy price” for his behavior.
While denying Zelenskyy a no-fly zone – something Biden has repeatedly warned would lead to a potentially devastating, all-out war between two nuclear-armed powers – Biden detailed assistance the United States is providing Ukraine as part of a sweeping funding package he signed this week.
The new $800 million in assistance includes 800 Stinger anti-aircraft systems, thousands of anti-armor weapons, drones, and more than 20 million rounds of small arms ammunition and grenade launchers, among other weaponry. The White House has noted that such weapons are useful in shooting down Russian aircraft. The package also includes body armor and helmets.
“I want to be honest with you – this could be a long and difficult battle,” Biden said. “But the American people will be steadfast in our support of the people of Ukraine in the face of Putin’s immoral, unethical attacks on civilian populations,” he added.
Biden is headed to Brussels next week to meet with European allies about the crisis in Ukraine.
“We’re going to stay the course, and we’re going to do everything we can,” Biden said.