“I called it genocide because it’s becoming clearer and more obvious that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is just trying to stamp out the idea of him being Ukrainian. The evidence is mounting,” Biden told reporters in Iowa after using the term earlier in a speech. .
“It’s different than it was last week, the more evidence comes out,” he continued. “Literally, the terrible things the Russians did in Ukraine – and we will only learn more and more about the devastation.”
“We’ll let the lawyers decide, at the international level, whether he’s qualified or not, but that certainly seems to me that way,” he concluded.
It was a dramatic rhetorical escalation in the United States’ view of what is happening on the ground in Ukraine, which Biden had previously considered war crimes. He appears to be the latest example of the president allowing his sentimental views of war to trump official US policy toward the conflict, even as he articulated the stance taken by many appalled Americans about scenes of brutality in Ukraine.
It won almost immediate praise from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who began accusing Russia of genocide inside his country last week.
“The real words of a real POTUS leader,” Zelensky wrote on Twitter. “Calling a spade a name is essential to countering evil. We are grateful for the American assistance provided thus far and urgently need more heavy weapons to prevent further Russian atrocities.”
The US government rarely classifies atrocities using the term genocide. Previous examples include the Chinese campaign against Uyghur Muslims and Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority. This decision carries no legal ramifications but carries significant weight as Biden seeks to rally countries behind a strategy to isolate and punish Moscow.
As recently as Sunday, Biden’s top advisers played down the importance of classifying Russia’s actions in Ukraine as genocide. Biden himself said last week that genocide is not underway.
But since then, scenes of horror have surfaced in Ukraine, including in the town of Bucha, where images of civilian deaths and mass graves have sparked an international outcry.
“Your family’s budget, your ability to fill your tank, none of it should depend on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide half a world away,” Biden said in Iowa, as he was unveiling a new rule on ethanol.
This was a different situation than it was a week ago.
While condemning the war crimes and atrocities, he and his aides said the actions seen in Ukraine did not amount to “genocide.”
“We’ve seen atrocities, we’ve seen war crimes,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said earlier this month. “We have yet to witness a level of systematic deprivation of the lives of the Ukrainian people that rises to the level of genocide.”
Administration officials cited the Myanmar Genocide designation, which took place just last month, as an example of the process used to create the poster. It took the United States to gather evidence over a period of years before deciding that genocide was underway.
“We will look at a series of indicators along these lines to make an eventual decision in Ukraine,” Sullivan said.
On Sunday, Sullivan told CNN’s Jake Tapper that calling it “genocide” is just as important as calling for atrocities.
“In my opinion, the label is less important than the fact that these actions are cruel, criminal, sinful and evil and must be answered decisively,” he said.
Biden has previously offered views on the situation in Ukraine beyond what his administration has officially stated. He said in mid-March that Putin was a “war criminal,” an opinion his press secretary later said was described “from the heart.”
Officially, the administration said war crimes were under way a few weeks later.
It’s yet another moment in which Biden is getting ahead of his administration’s official position.
Biden, who visited Warsaw later in March, said in a speech that Putin “cannot remain in power.” Later, he said that he was speaking after an emotional visit to refugees, and that the United States does not pursue a policy of regime change in Russia.
This story was updated with additional developments on Tuesday.