President Joe Biden’s statement this week that Russia is committing “genocide” in Ukraine has caused concern among some officials in his own government and has so far not been confirmed by information gathered by US intelligence, according to senior administration officials.
At the State Department, which is tasked with making formal decisions on genocide and war crimes through an independent legal process, two officials said Biden’s apparent direct statement during a Iowa domestic policy speech Tuesday made it harder for the agency to do so credibly. job.
US intelligence services gather information when allegations are made about acts that could constitute genocide, but it is the politicians who actually decide whether to declare it. Intelligence reports on Ukraine do not currently support a designation for genocide, officials said.
“Genocide includes a goal of destroying an ethnic group or nation, and so far that is not what we are seeing,” a U.S. intelligence official said.
However, there is concern within the intelligence community that Russia’s actions in the next phase of the war could constitute a genocide, and an official said the assessment could be part of what prompted Biden to take a public stance that precedes his own government.
The question of when Russia’s actions in Ukraine should be described as “genocide”, especially the legal threshold for doing so, has been debated in the White House ever since images of mass graves and civil torture and assassinations appeared in Bucha, people said. who is familiar with the discussions. Biden had recently begun to make his views clear in private, so White House officials were not surprised that he called what was happening in Ukraine “genocide,” but they were surprised that he did so incomprehensibly. in a speech in Iowa on inflation, people said.
A White House spokesman for the National Security Council said: “We are actively working to assist national and international efforts to document and investigate credible reports of atrocities, analyze the evidence and identify any Russians responsible for the atrocities and war crimes that have been committed. committed in Ukraine so that they can be held accountable. ”
In a statement, a State Department spokesman said: “We will follow the facts and the law wherever they lead.”
Biden’s ‘personal’ views
The president’s statement on genocide in Ukraine was the third time in recent weeks that the president has tried to separate what he says are his personal views from official US policy of taking a position that he believes is right, even if it is not. in accordance with the position. his own government.
Biden said Russia committed war crimes in Ukraine – another symbolic and legally significant moment when he came before his own administration – a week before the U.S. government ended its legal process and formally made that statement.
Biden also said that Russian President Vladimir Putin should no longer be in power, prompting his aides to say that was not what he meant and stressing that US policy is not a regime change in Moscow. Biden later said he meant what he said – that it was his “personal” point of view – but not US policy.
To clarify that he expressed his personal position by calling the situation in Ukraine genocide, Biden said that “more evidence is coming out” on Russia’s actions there. “And we will only learn more and more about the devastation,” he said. “And we’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether it’s qualified or not, but it certainly seems that way to me.”
While some officials met Biden’s comments with apprehension, especially after his aides highlighted the lengthy legal due diligence required to make such an appointment, others welcomed his public statement, officials said.
People familiar with the internal discussions said Biden has felt that he and his aides were too slow to call Russia’s actions in Ukraine a war crime and brand Putin a war criminal, and he did not want to be left behind with what he believes is genocide. .
The president believes Ukraine is a crisis that is developing too fast to move at the pace of bureaucracy, these people said. So while officials in the administration are debating these issues and working through cumbersome legal processes, he has felt the need to speak out to reflect the moment, they said, and has believed that history will prove him right.
“These are not gaffers,” said a person close to the White House. “He does this very purposefully.”
In response to questions about Biden’s genocide statement, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters this week, “The president called it what he sees it, and that’s what he does.”
The apparent disruption between the president and the bureaucracy he oversees is striking given Biden’s extensive experience in foreign policy and government. Biden has also emphasized since the 2020 campaign that “a president’s word matters.” And he has gone out of his way to say that he would not try to influence the decisions of the independent Ministry of Justice, but some officials in the administration see a willingness for him to do just that with other independent legal processes.
Once the president says he believes genocide and war crimes have been committed, administration officials said it puts enormous pressure on career officials to reach the same conclusion. The concern is that if and when the State Department’s Office of Global Crime reaches these conclusions on its own, the office risks showing up late for the game or as if trying to justify Biden’s public comments, officials said.
One administration official said Biden’s comments had put particular pressure on Beth Van Schaack, the U.S. ambassador to global criminal justice, which was confirmed by the Senate last month. On Friday, Schaack met with Ukraine’s Attorney General Iryna Venediktova to compare notes as the Venetian Voice’s office investigates alleged Russian war crimes from Russia. Venice, like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has already accused Russia of genocide in Ukraine.
U.S. intelligence officials say the Russians have been told that Ukrainians in the eastern Donbas region, where fighting is expected to intensify, are Nazis and that Ukrainian civilians are Nazi sympathizers, prompting concern about genocide, officials said. The Russians have also been told the same thing about Ukrainians in Mariupol, officials said, and one noted how brutal Moscow’s military campaign has been there.
Genocide is a specific crime defined under international law and proving it requires a high level of intent to commit genocide.
The bite’s early accusation against Russia, which was welcomed by Zelenskyy, even came before human rights organizations, which have often pressured US administrations to declare that a regime has committed genocide.
Human Rights Watch, for example, has so far found no evidence of a genocide campaign led by Russia, according to Tara Sepehri Far, acting deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Washington office.
“Our research does not match the definition yet,” Sepehri Far said. “That does not mean it does not happen.”
Throughout his decades-long career, Biden has at times been quicker than others in the U.S. government to speak out about genocide.
As a U.S. senator – whose words weighed heavily, but not as much as that of the commander-in-chief – he was often in front of his colleagues. In June 1994, when the Clinton administration avoided saying that the massacre in Rwanda was genocide, Biden, then a senator, joined other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and insisted that it was.
“Reliable – yes, uncontested – reports prove that this is in fact a planned genocide campaign,” the senators wrote in a joint letter.
Around the same time, Biden was among the more powerful voices in American politics calling for strong international intervention in the war in Bosnia. In June 1994, Biden joined Senator Bob Dole, R-Kan., To visit Sarajevo, then under siege. The next year, Biden co-sponsored Dole’s landmark legislation that lifted the US arms embargo on Bosnia and Herzegovina. A decade later, Biden was one of eight co-sponsors of legislation celebrating the Srebrenica massacre as genocide.
Last year, Biden became the first president to formally recognize the massacre of Armenians during World War I as genocide – more than a century after the fact. The historic move fulfilled a long-sought wish of the Armenian diaspora, but angered NATO ally Turkey if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan begged Biden to take it back.
As president, Biden’s words carry more weight, and facing a formal legal process could destroy the ultimate goal of holding regimes like Russia accountable, Sepehri Far said.
“It is extremely important for the United States to take the lead in establishing the authoritative truth,” she said. “You will not use the word without being able to fully back it up and implement it, because otherwise there is a danger that it will not be taken seriously.”