In prepared remarks in Iowa on Tuesday, Biden said the prices we pay in the United States should not depend on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide half the world away.
“Yes, I called it genocide,” Biden subsequently told reporters. “Because it has become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to obliterate the idea of being able to be Ukrainian at all.” He added that “we let the lawyers decide internationally whether it is qualified or not, but it certainly seems that way to me.”
It is a time in our culture where hardly anyone shows great care with words, but it should not be too much to demand that the President of the United States show more discipline than most.
Instead, Biden continues the tradition established by Donald Trump that a president routinely says things contrary to the policies of his own administration.
Just last week, Biden still refused to say that Russian atrocities rose to the level of genocide, and his national security adviser Jake Sullivan backed him up, arguing that there was not enough evidence for that accusation. When Jake Tapper from CNN last weekend pressed him on the question, Sullivan would not approach the floor.
Now, Biden officials say the president “spoke from his heart” (Secretary of State Victoria Nuland), “spoke to the impression he had” (Secretary of State Ned Price spokesman), and “is allowed to make his views known in any at any time he could ”(White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki).
Once again, walk-back is appropriate. There are many things that Russia can rightly be accused of in Ukraine – from starting a war with unprovoked aggression, to showing corrupt indifference to the lives and welfare of civilians, to committing war crimes – but committing genocide is not one of Dem.
The concept of genocide must mean something more than doing really horrible things that should be condemned by all decent people, otherwise the word loses its meaning.
The United Nations defines genocide as acts “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”
The Russians are guilty of great savagery in Ukraine, but there is no evidence that they intend to exterminate the Ukrainians.
Their original plan was to sweep President Volodymyr Zelenskyy out of power quickly and install a pro-Russian government. All indications are that if this opportunity had really been on the way, the Russians would have been happy to have a puppet preside over a pacified Ukraine filled with quiet Ukrainians – in fact, they seem to have mistakenly assumed that was what took place. To happen.
Now, after misjudging the courage and national spirit of the Ukrainians (and the steadfastness of the West), the Russians have withdrawn from Kiev. The relapse strategy seems to be to take as much territory in the east and south as possible in a prelude to forcing the Ukrainians to an unfavorable solution. This is a cynical approach with all the subtlety of a Grad missile launcher, but it’s not genocide either.
If there is no doubt about the vicious and bloodthirsty crime in the Russian campaign, it is not specific to Ukraine. The Russians used pretty much the same tactics in Chechnya, Syria and Afghanistan before that. This is the Russian way of war.
Even in Ukraine, it is not as if the Russians are making cultural and ethnic distinctions in their brutality. The code word for the burnt earth character of their tactics is Mauripol, a predominantly Russian-speaking city with a large Russian population.
Zelenskyy praised Biden for making the accusation of genocide. It makes sense that the Ukrainians want the accusation to be part of the conversation – there is no better way to delegitimize their Russian attackers.
There is no formal obligation to do anything to stop a genocide. Yet it is such a monstrous crime that returns to the Holocaust that it creates significant moral pressure to act.
This is another reason why it is so strange that Biden used the term. He wants to stop a total effort in Ukraine and instead of distinguishing between different forms of support we provide to the Ukrainians and how we do it – for example, offensive versus defensive weapons.
If Russia commits a genocide, then how can we maintain our refusal to let the Ukrainians fly MIGs from Ramstein Air Base? When confronted with such an enormity, it seems like a minor risk to take.
In the end, however, the word used about Russia’s atrocities does not mean much. We will not seek a direct NATO clash with Russia in any case, nor will we. So whether Biden or his administration is right about the terminology, the only sensible and realistic answer is to focus on getting the Ukrainians all the weapons they need as quickly as possible.
The test in Ukraine is then (thankfully) not what Biden says, but what he does.