On Tuesday, the president again deviated from his prepared remarks, describing Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine as a “genocide,” despite top US officials saying last week that they had not yet seen evidence of actions that meet that definition, and even a legal review of the case is not completed.
Biden’s comment outside the cuff marked the latest example of the tension between his often emotionally charged reaction to Putin’s brutal war and the international implications of a president’s words. Throughout his political career, Biden has cultivated a reputation for unwritten honesty, a trait that Allies hail as humanizing, but opponents mock as undisciplined.
“I’m impressed with the fact that if he’s horrified and moved by what he’s witnessing, as we all do, he’s not saying it in nice language,” said Harold Koh, who served as legal adviser at the State Department. under the Obama administration. “He says what he thinks it is. I would rather have more politicians be more honest than be wiser with their words.”
But amid the largest land war in Europe since World War II, Biden’s tendency to deviate from official US 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 on Wednesday that an “escalation of rhetoric” could hinder efforts to “stop this war and rebuild peace.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday faced questions about how allies are expected to know when Biden is expressing American politics and when he is simply expressing his personal views. She framed Biden’s remark about the genocide as proof of his honesty.
“When the president ran, he promised the American people that he would shoot off the shoulder … and tell them that directly,” she said. “His comments yesterday, not once but twice, about war crimes, are an accurate reflection of that. I do not think anyone is confused about the atrocities we see on earth, the horrors we see on earth.”
She added: “The president spoke to what we all see, to what he feels is as clear as day.”
But that reaction is contrary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ painstaking process of reaching a decision on genocide, which, among other things, requires clear documentation that the perpetrators intended to annihilate a group in whole or in part. Last month, for example, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken declared that the slaughter of the Rohingya by the Burmese military was a genocide.
Blinken described how the department had combed detailed reports from a number of independent sources.
“Given the seriousness of this determination, it was also important for this administration to conduct its own analysis of the facts and the law,” Blinken said. He added: “Percentages, numbers, patterns, intentions: these are crucial to reaching the genocide provision.”
Biden, however, did not seem to trust any of them. “The president called it what he sees it, and that’s what he does,” Psaki said.
A genocide designation from the US government does not automatically trigger any particular action. But it could add pressure on the United States to intervene before it is ready, diplomats say, and could force the accused to take a more defiant stance. Beyond that, they add, a rigorous process ensures that the engraved term is not used loosely.
Foreign Ministry officials said Wednesday that they are not now declaring genocide in Ukraine. On the contrary, they help with global efforts to document evidence of alleged war crimes to see if the “legal threshold” [of genocide] is met, ”said department spokesman Ned Price.
The process of declaring a genocide is cumbersome and can take months, Koh said, adding that the State Department must work with intelligence services in the United States and abroad to determine whether war crimes were committed “with the intent of destroying the Ukrainian people as a whole. ” The agency will eventually produce a lengthy report in which it concludes with varying degrees of confidence whether a genocide took place.
“Continuation is hard to prove because you need some kind of smoking gun – a note or a directive or an unclassified phone call that says something like ‘kill them all,'” Koh said. He added that Biden is “perfectly entitled to say, as a matter of personal conviction, that he believes Putin has that intention, but I think it is different from saying that the United States has evidence that that they could prove that case beyond any reasonable doubt in a court of law. “
The UN defines genocide as an attempt to completely or partially destroy an ethnic, racial, religious or national group. Russia has carried out a brutal killing campaign throughout Ukraine, and investigators have uncovered evidence of pre-death torture, beheading and mutilation and deliberate cremation in cities like Bucha.
Human rights defenders say the expanded genocide inquiry should not join a broader effort to hold Russia accountable.
“There must be accountability for mass atrocities,” said Adam Keith, director of accountability at Human Rights First. “Genocide is one type of mass cruelty, and the Genocide Convention has complicated standards. It is difficult to prove. “
Since World War II, the United States has made only eight formal declarations of genocide, including a decision that Turkey’s killing of Armenians during World War I qualified. As a reflection of the brand’s volatility, Turkish leaders spent decades trying to avoid having it applied to centuries-old events.
One question is whether Biden’s heartfelt statement could affect the official process.
“Once the President of the United States has said that it looks like genocide to him, it puts a lot of pressure on the State Department and the lawyers in particular to reach the same conclusion,” said John B. Bellinger, III. who served as legal adviser to the State Department in the George W. Bush administration.
He added: “I do not think the president was out of base. He certainly came before the formal process in the State Department, but this is not the first time this has happened.”
Biden first referred to Russia’s war in Ukraine as a genocide Tuesday afternoon at an event in Menlo, Iowa, when he attacked Putin’s invasion of Ukraine for its impact on rising prices. “Your family budget, your ability to fill your tank – none of that should depend on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide half a world away,” he said.
White House officials were surprised when they did not anticipate that Biden would make such an important statement during a speech on ethanol in Iowa. But when officials were inundated with queries from journalists, Biden and his aides decided he wanted to make it clear that he intended to make the comment and that it reflected his personal beliefs.
Before boarding Air Force One back to Washington, Biden told reporters he would “let lawyers decide internationally whether it qualifies or not.” But he said, “It certainly seems that way to me.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky immediately praised Biden’s remark, writing on Twitter: “Calling things by their names is crucial to standing up to evil.”
On Wednesday, Psaki strongly defended Biden’s comments – and their timing.
“He is the President of the United States and the leader of the free world, and he is allowed to make his views known at any time,” Psaki said.