Biden Condemns Russian ‘Genocide’

Whether deliberate or another 'gaffe,' he's likely right.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on ending the war in Afghanistan, Tuesday, August 31, 2021, in front of the Cross Hall of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

WaPo (“Biden calls Russia’s war in Ukraine a ‘genocide’“):

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.”

As with his earlier declaration that Putin is a war criminal and call for regime change, his assessment is surely correct but diplomatically unhelpful. “Genocide,” in particular, comes with legal obligations that can’t easily be ignored.

Zack Beauchamp expands on this at Vox:

The charge of “genocide” is uniquely powerful in international public opinion, owing to the memory of World War II and the Holocaust. Nowhere is this more true than Germany, the country that also will play the most important role in determining whether to impose painful new sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas sector.

And if a genocide really is occurring in Ukraine, it matters for the victims to document it and show the world — and then, after the fighting, identify ways to hold at least some of the perpetrators accountable.

For this reason—and because the legal bar for qualifying as “genocide” is high—experts disagree as to whether it qualifies. Thus far, most are keeping their powder dry and simply condemning “war crimes.”

Still, given that there’s no foreseeable way out of this crisis that leaves Putin in power, it may ultimately prove worth calling a spade a spade in this case. We’re already actively pursuing a case in the Hague.

The Biden administration is vigorously debating how much the United States can or should assist an investigation into Russian atrocities in Ukraine by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations.

The Biden team strongly wants to see President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and others in his military chain of command held to account. And many are said to consider the court — which was created by a global treaty two decades ago as a venue for prosecuting war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide — the body most capable of achieving that.

But laws from 1999 and 2002, enacted by a Congress wary that the court might investigate Americans, limit the government’s ability to provide support. And the United States has long objected to any exercise of jurisdiction by the court over citizens of countries that are not part of the treaty that created it — like the United States, but also Russia.

The internal debate, described by senior administration officials and others familiar with the matter on the condition of anonymity, has been partly shaped by a previously undisclosed 2010 memo by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Obtained by The New York Times, the memo interprets the scope and limits of permissible cooperation with the court.

The discussions have also been marked by Pentagon opposition to softening the U.S. stance, even as congressional Republicans, long skeptics of the court, have signaled openness to finding a way to help it bring Russian officials to justice.

For now, officials said, the primary focus has been on compiling evidence of apparent war crimes that are still unfolding — both the details of particular killings and intelligence that President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, asserted on Sunday indicates a high-level plan to brutalize the civilian population into terrorized subjugation.

“This was something that was planned,” he said on ABC’s “This Week,” adding, “Make no mistake, the larger issue of broad-scale war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine lies at the feet of the Kremlin and lies at the feet of the Russian president.”

As I’ve noted many times before, it’s exceedingly unlikely Putin and other top Russian officials will ever see the inside of a jail cell.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    As I’ve noted many times before, it’s exceedingly unlikely Putin and other top Russian officials will ever see the inside of a jail cell.

    I’m willing to settle for a 9mm or even a .22 round seeing the inside of Vlad’s cranium.

    5
  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    If the US goal is to cause long-term damage to Russia – as I believe it should be – making it harder for Putin to crawl out from under his rock is a good thing. It’s not time for diplomacy, it’s time for the US and its allies to push support for Ukraine right to the limit.

    6
  3. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Zelenskyy has tweeted that Biden’s remarks are the “true words of a true leader.”

    6
  4. Slugger says:

    There is no reason for the world’s leader to kowtow to a murderous dictator. It will not discourage the bad guy if the USA kisses his behind. Will it hurt Putin’s feefees? Too bad.
    Diplomacy is not acquiescence to everything the other guy does.

    5
  5. MarkedMan says:

    The charge of “genocide” is uniquely powerful in international public opinion, owing to the memory of World War II and the Holocaust. Nowhere is this more true than Germany, the country that also will play the most important role in determining whether to impose painful new sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas sector.

    Given the spurt of stories in the past few days about how Germans are having second thoughts about how much to support the Ukrainians and the sanctions, this may be the reason he used this term.

    All these decades, one thing that kept me from buying into the trope of Biden as a bumbling gaffer was how often Presidents tapped him on the shoulder for discrete but important foreign negotiations. If I remember correctly this crossed party lines on occasion.

    5
  6. Kathy says:

    The big question is how long will NATO and EU countries will keep supplying Ukraine with weapons and materiel. The anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles cost tens of thousands of dollars each. That’s not much money at the national government level, but it adds up.

    The other big questions are 1) how much further are EU countries willing to take sanctions, as in whether they’ll stop paying for Russian oil and/or gas; and 2) how long will the sanctions remain in place?

    Russia is big and buys a lot of stuff from the West. Boeing and Airbus alone have an order backlog for Russia of over 100 planes between them, plus spare parts and tech support for existing and future aircraft. That’s a big boatload of money.

    3
  7. Jon says:

    Russia sure seems to want to make it easier for folks to label this a genocide.

    4
  8. Scott says:

    Calling it genocide also invokes the concept of Responsibility to Protect that is imposed on countries.

    From the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and Responsibility to Protect

    The responsibility to protect embodies a political commitment to end the worst forms of violence and persecution. It seeks to narrow the gap between Member States’ pre-existing obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law and the reality faced by populations at risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

    In paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document (A/RES/60/1) Heads of State and Government affirmed their responsibility to protect their own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and accepted a collective responsibility to encourage and help each other uphold this commitment. They also declared their preparedness to take timely and decisive action, in accordance with the United Nations Charter and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations, when national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations.

    It could be just loose words but it also could be intentional to set up a interventionalist Responsibility to Protect.

    6
  9. CSK says:

    @Jon:
    So…”a Nazi is a Ukrainian who refuses to admit to being a Russian.”

    5
  10. JohnSF says:

    @CSK:
    The Soviet, and latterly the Russian, definitions of “Nazi” and “fascist” have long been rather different than they are elsewhere. In a somewhat predictable fashion.

    5
  11. Jon says:

    @CSK:

    ”a Nazi is a Ukrainian who refuses to admit to being a Russian.”

    Yeah, puts a really weird spin on a whole lot of WWII movies.

    ETA: Also the Blues Brothers.

  12. JohnSF says:

    @Kathy:
    @MarkedMan:
    The problem with the expanded hydrocarbon sanctions is that some European economies are so dependent; especially on gas.
    If it was mid-winter it would be even worse: cutting off Russian gas then would mean deaths.
    And I mean lots of deaths.
    Whole countries with no means of heating home or public buildings, almost no way of cooking food.

    Even in warmer times, it still has a massive domestic impact (see: food) and the economic hit.
    Massive amounts of German industry rely on gas for process heat, and it can’t be replaced, in the short to medium term.

    This in turn is producing massive rows between European countries as some support full boycotts and other plead necessity to avoid them.
    And a lot of increasingly bad tempered exchanges between German politicians and Ukraine.

    IMO better to bite the bullet and boycott now: it’s coming willy-nilly, better to control the crash and have it happen now rather than next winter.

    Money for arms is trivial if you look at it from the perspective of a war consigliere.
    The British attitude to costs and state direction of the economy in WW2: “Sod it. Just do it.”

    As to sanctions staying in place; I’ll bet on decades, rather than months or even years.
    Russia under Putin, or any other leader who shares his attitudes of Russian paramount power over European states, is to dangerous not to be a target of economic warfare.

    There is inevitably pushback from some circles of Germany, SPD and CSU politicains, and the bureasucracy, especially with a bland, consensus seeking, conventional, cautious leader like Scholz.
    “A man best suited to be a small town mayor” as one German comment put it.
    The big surprise was he shifted so fast on Nordstream 2, weapons supply, and defence budgets.
    I think he’s in shock from his own boldness, LOL.

    But I think the Germans will hold; there’s a critical mass of the establishment now convinced that the “bet on Moscow” was a really bad play.
    It’s chivvying them forward that’s going to be tricky.
    Though note Foreign Minister Baerbock (a Green) is calling for supply of heavy weapons to Ukraine.

    There are other politicians and civil servants who are twitchy, inclined to silly (and bloddy dangerous) “calibrated” supply: “Are these offensive weapons? Is that escalation? Are we sending a good diplomatic message?”
    Twits.

    But it’s not just Germany: there a some similar voices in Paris, apparently; and in Washington.
    Fingers being pointed in Europe at some close to NSA Sullivan as being addicted to “calibrating” arms deliveries.

    4
  13. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Jon:

    I hate Illinois Nazis!

    1
  14. JohnSF says:

    It seems Sweden and Finland have made their decisions:
    NATO here we come.

    2
  15. Gustopher says:

    Still, given that there’s no foreseeable way out of this crisis that leaves Putin in power, it may ultimately prove worth calling a spade a spade in this case.

    I expect that it will resolve with Putin still in power, turning his attention towards his domestic enemies. The unpleasant, but most likely scenario.

    And Europe needs the gas, so if the shooting stops I’m guessing that the European resolve will weaken.

    2
  16. Kathy says:

    @JohnSF:

    I assume the oil and gas thing has more to do with existing pipelines rather than global supply. I mean, it’s not just buying oil, but getting it from producer to consumer.

    As to weapons supply, it is a small amount relatively speaking. But also just the kind of thing a populist supportive of Putin would seize on, since the numbers seem large in an absolute sense to the average person. A figure like, say $10 billion isn’t much for a European government, but it’s far more money than you, your family, your friends, and everyone you’ve ever met will ever make all together.

    A populist, too, would not quote accurate figures. $50 billion is far more impressive.

    1
  17. JohnSF says:

    @Kathy:

    ….oil and gas thing has more to do with existing pipelines rather than global supply

    Yes, exactly that.
    And oil is a lot easier than gas; shipping gas requires specialised (read very refrigerated and very pressure tight) ships and terminals.
    That’s why pipelines are the method of choice for gas; it’s THE big exception to the general rule that ships are always the cheapest form of long distance movement.
    And Germany doesn’t even have any LNG terminals.
    Is talking about rigging up emergency floating ones; otherwise its dependant on pipes and terminals in Netherlands and France, and I suspect they are already close to maxed out.

    Gas is more a local than a global market; that’s why prices can be dirt cheap in the States and sky high over here even if (like UK) you have massive LNG terminals available.
    We get 48% of ours from UK offshore; 30% from Norway; 20% LNG from the Middle East and the US.
    But our prices are still determined by European market rates (as my gas bill is currently screaming at me).

    Oh, and if Germany declares an energy emergency, under terms of EU treaties with Norway, that country is obliged to prioritise supply to the EU.
    That would not have hit the UK before; unfortunately we are now ex-members of the EU.
    Oops.

    2
  18. CSK says:

    @JohnSF:
    Ireland may not be far behind them.

  19. Mikey says:

    @CSK:

    Zelenskyy has tweeted that Biden’s remarks are the “true words of a true leader.”

    And they certainly stand in stark contrast to “I would like you to do us a favor, though.”

    4
  20. Sleeping Dog says:

    @JohnSF:

    I suspect that Putin’s blustering yesterday, provided cover for Finland and Sweden’s leaders to take the next step. It would make it harder for domestic opponents o f NATO membership to make the case.

    1
  21. Fog says:

    If there’s a lesson here, it is that prosperous democracies should not be shoveling cash to authoritarian regimes who want to destroy them, for any reason whatsoever. Cheap shit comes at far too high a price in the long run.

    4
  22. Kathy says:

    Yesterday Mad Vlad entered the Big Brother part of his war, by claiming everything’s been going according to plan.

    The initial invasion and developments looked like a straight up bid to take over all Ukraine. Formations headed to take the ports and major cities, and of course to take the capital. Actions then clearly indicate this was the plan.

    Granted no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, this one did far worse than most.

    The thing is however disastrous things get for Russia’s armies, Vlad can claim that was the plan all along. If so, I’d like to know who plans to get bogged down close to the target’s capital and then retreat, and ditto for some other cities and regions. The Germans in WWI never stopped gunning for Paris.

    Of course, if they’d had Putin available it might have been a shorter war.

    1
  23. JohnSF says:

    @Kathy:

    The Germans in WWI never stopped gunning for Paris.

    Sort of: the real target of the Schlieffen Plan was the French Army, Paris was the nexus of that due to it’s being the railway hub, so when the Germans hooked through Belgium, the French were bound to transit via Paris to try to block them.
    So if the German right swung wide west of Paris, they could envelop and destroy.

    A bit like the Russian offensive in a way: the Germans over-estimated their capacity to move fast and hit in strength once off the rail net.

    And in 1918 Operation Michael aimed at initially breaking the line somewhere north-west of Paris around the Somme to split the French and British armies.
    Again, initial successes but no logistic capacity to exploit.

    Russia in Ukraine is sort of like the German approach updated, then backdated, then robbed blind, then implemented by Mussolini.

    3
  24. Jon says:

    @JohnSF:

    then implemented by Mussolini.

    Ouch.

    1
  25. Kathy says:

    @JohnSF:

    If I wanted to destroy an army, I’d get them to attack me first.

  26. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JohnSF:
    It seems Sweden and Finland have made their decisions:

    It would be fascinating to know just how Putin spins this. NATO tanks and jets coule be within 100 miles of St. Petersburg. Strategery!

  27. JohnSF says:

    @Kathy:

    If I wanted to destroy an army, I’d get them to attack me first.

    That’s why the military adage is as an attacker you need manpower edge at the battle of about 3 to 1 to win.
    In a way that was the key to the Schlieffen Plan of 1914.
    The French attacked first, as the Germans expected: the Plan XVII.
    And lost 329,000 casualties.

    The German idea was that while the French were hung up on the frontier and bleeding white, the main attacking strength of Reichswehr would race through Belgium, hit the French left with overwhelming force, then swing past Paris in a massive encirclement.
    The French main forces would be cut off, the French rail net severed, and Paris isolated.

    Might have worked, in theory.
    In practice it underestimated the problems of moving on foot and with horse wagons on such a massive scale, and being able to keep up the pace and have firepower capacity at the front of the columns.
    The French were able to take advantage of the Paris rail hub to pull enough forces away from the front, and from rear areas, shove them in the way of the Germans, and keep them supplied.

    Another cautionary tale of the perils of optimism.
    (Over to you, Vova)

  28. JohnSF says:

    Thinking about it, if you squint sideways in twilight, the original Russian plan A is the only one that makes any sense, given the lack of sufficient forces to occupy and pacify:
    Race into Kyiv via air assault and a follow-up tank column, collapse the government, install a puppet, fait accompli.
    Meanwhile the other columns grab territory just in case, and exploit the political chaos for position and division.

    Fall back plan B is that if decapitation fails, the follow up armoured column should seize Kyiv, and Russia is again in a position to impose terms.

    Weakness of both being, assuming the Ukrainian army was as fragile as in 2014, and assuming that Ukrainian politics mirrors that of Russia, but more so: no genuine civil basis, a facade for corruption.
    Lazy thinking about the nature of Ukrainian nationalism and its relation to language and “machine politics”.

    And then Plan A and Plan B both go tits up, and get in the way of an improvised Plan C: surround, besiege, bombard (and then?)

    Russian army trips over its own feet, effort is dispersed all over the place, Putin (?) refuses to retreat to sort out the supply lines
    Cue logistic collapse and savage attrition on the northern front, while the others don’t make that much headway either.

    Should have remembered Napoleon’s maxim:

    “If you are going to take Vienna, take Vienna.”

    If the assault had ignore the temptation to faff about elsewhere and just hit Kyiv OR ignored Kyiv and hit Donbas, it might have worked.
    Fell between two stools.

    And degenerated into genocidal atrocity in the process.