As leaders debate ‘genocide,’ a growing focus on atrocities in Ukraine

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President Biden’s claim that Russia is committing “genocide” in Ukraine faced a mixture of support, uneasiness and opposition on Wednesday, with French President Emmanuel Macron warning against an “escalation of rhetoric,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailing the “true words of a true leader” and a Kremlin spokesman calling the comments “unacceptable.”

The dueling rhetoric revealed the difficulties of responding to a conflict increasingly defined by horrifying images of mass slaughter — without either shutting potential pathways to a diplomatic solution or falling out of step with key allies.

A prosecutor with the International Criminal Court visited the ravaged Kyiv suburb of Bucha on Wednesday as two international organizations published reports showing the extent of the devastation the invasion, which is entering its eighth week, has wrought across Ukraine.

The 57-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe accused Russia of illegally targeting hospitals, schools, residential buildings and water facilities, leading to civilian deaths and injuries. The United Nations said damaged water infrastructure and electricity networks have left 1.4 million people without running water in eastern Ukraine, with 4.6 million people across the country — more than 10 percent of the prewar population — at risk of losing their water supply.

There’s scant disagreement in the West about the severity of the crisis or Russia’s role in perpetuating it. But Biden’s impromptu genocide declaration, during a speech about ethanol in Iowa on Tuesday, surprised some European leaders who maintain channels of communication with Russia in the hope of brokering a cease-fire.

President Biden on April 12 in Des Moines, referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “dictator” committing “genocide” in Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: The Washington Post)

Genocide is defined as the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular ethnic group or country with the aim of destroying that community. Countries that signed the 1948 Genocide Convention, including the United States, are obligated “to prevent and to punish” genocide, according to the convention. Declaring a genocide is therefore a significant political, moral and legal, as well as diplomatic, issue.

“Genocide has a meaning,” Macron told the France 2 television broadcaster on Wednesday. “The Ukrainian people and the Russian people are brethren people.”

“What is happening is madness, it’s a brutality that’s unheard of,” he added. He said, “But I’m not sure that an escalation of words serves the cause.” So I’m not sure that an escalation of words serves the cause.”

Investigators exhumed 21 of at least 67 bodies suspected to be lying in a mass grave in Bucha, Ukraine, April 8. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post, Photo: The Washington Post)

Macron’s remark prompted an angry response from Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko, who said the French president’s “unwillingness to recognize the genocide of Ukrainians after all the outspoken statements of [the] Russian leadership and criminal actions of [the] Russian military is disappointing.”

” ‘Brotherly’ people do not kill children,” Nikolenko said, adding that “there is no moral, no real reason to conduct conversations about the ‘brotherly’ relations of Russian and Ukrainian peoples.”

Shortly after making the genocide declaration in his speech on Tuesday, Biden approached reporters and clarified that he would “let the lawyers decide” but that “it sure seems that way to me.”

The White House had already been flooded with questions about the comment. Biden made the decision to go to the camera before Air Force One left and clarify that he meant to comment. The incident harked back to Biden’s recent trip to Poland when he also went further than his top aides had been willing to go in declaring Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal.”

President Biden talked about why he called the war in Ukraine a “genocide” on April 12. He said, “It sure appears that way to me.” (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: The Washington Post)

On Wednesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the department will be assisting the international effort to document and collect atrocities allegations to see if the “legal threshold is met” to declare genocide. When asked if Biden’s outspokenness could undermine the legal process, Price defended the president’s actions, saying he was putting a “very public spotlight on the atrocities that are taking place in Ukraine right now.”

“For us, we want the world’s attention to remain trained on this,” Price said.

The agitation over how to label atrocities is no small matter, said Zachary D. Kaufman, an international legal expert at the University of Houston Law Center. He said that genocide is viewed by many as one of the worst crimes. “So, characterizing an atrocity as genocide makes stopping it extremely compelling morally.”

There are also reasons for why some leaders are more sensitive about using the word than others.

“For Biden, talking about genocide in Ukraine is a rhetorical opportunity to ratchet up pressure on Putin,” said Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the International Crisis Group. “For Macron, avoiding the phrase is about keeping open some channel for diplomacy.”

For the United States, moral outrage also can be used to pressure allies to do more to support Ukraine, in the form of military and economic aid, and punish Russia, in the form of bans on oil or gas imports.

“The more hawkish allies such as Poland, Britain and sometimes the United States are constantly upping the moral ante to try to shame countries such as Germany, Italy and Turkey who are taking a slightly more dovish approach,” said Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But he said the rhetorical escalation carries risks, too: “If this war does indeed grind on and the atrocities mount as they usually do in both quantity and quality, we may someday regret that we used up all of our moral ammunition so early.”

Wednesday was not the first time Macron has diverged from Biden’s comments on the war. Late last month, the French president cautioned against escalating the conflict through words or actions after his U.S. counterpart declared that Putin “cannot remain in power.”

In early March, Putin called Macron for a 90-minute discussion about Ukraine, but there was no diplomatic breakthrough.

“Your country will pay dearly because it will end up as an isolated country, weakened and under sanctions for a very long time,” Macron reportedly told Putin.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Kyiv on April 9 and met his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky. (Video: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service, Photo: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service)

Given the length of time required to make a formal finding of genocide, Biden is unlikely to find legal backing for his view anytime soon. Despite mounting evidence that Russian forces committed atrocities in Bucha, efforts to verify the allegations have advanced. Karim Khan (ICC Prosecutor) visited Bucha this week. Khan had announced an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine shortly after the Feb. 24 invasion.

“We have to pierce the fog of war to know the truth,” Khan said, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency.

Last week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the grisly scenes in Bucha, a Kyiv suburb where bodies were discovered in every neighborhood after Russian troops retreated, did not “look far short of genocide.”

Investigators have been able to access Bucha and other territories formerly held by Russian forces following a shift by Putin to focus on eastern and southern Ukraine in the face of heavy losses near Kyiv and elsewhere.

Russian-held areas and troop movement

BELARUS

RUSSIA

POL.

Chernihiv

Separatist-

controlled

area

Kyiv

Lviv

Kharkiv

UKRAINE

Mariupol

Odessa

ROMANIA

200 MILES

Control areas as of April 13

Sources: Institute for the Study of War,

AEI’s Critical Threats Project, Post reporting

Russian-held areas

and troop movement

BELARUS

RUSSIA

Chernihiv

POLAND

Chernobyl

Kyiv

Sumy

Lviv

Kharkiv

UKRAINE

Separatist-

controlled

area

Odessa

Mariupol

Berdyansk

ROMANIA

Kherson

Crimea

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

100 MILES

Black Sea

Control areas as of April 13

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project, Post reporting

Russian-held areas

and troop movement

BELARUS

RUSSIA

Chernihiv

POLAND

Chernobyl

Kyiv

Sumy

Lviv

Kharkiv

Separatist-

controlled

area

UKRAINE

Mykolaiv

Mariupol

Berdyansk

Kherson

ROMANIA

Odessa

Kherson

Crimea

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

100 MILES

Control areas as of April 13

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project, Post reporting

Russian military commanders across the border continue to stage troops, helicopters and artillery ahead of an anticipated assault in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region and farther south, the Pentagon said Wednesday. Some units are already moving into northern Luhansk where there has been a lot of fighting over the years between the Ukrainian government and the separatists supported by the Kremlin.

The Russian Defense Ministry on Wednesday acknowledged that a key missile cruiser in its Black Sea Fleet had suffered significant damage but said little about what caused it as Ukrainian authorities claimed credit for immobilizing the ship. Russian state media reported Wednesday that a key missile cruiser in its Black Sea Fleet had suffered significant damage. However, it did not say what caused the explosion as Ukrainian authorities claimed credit for immobilizing the ship.

Most Russian airstrikes remain focused on targets in Donbas and in the besieged city of Mariupol, said a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon. The official stated that “We still consider Mariupol a contested town” and addressed Russian claims of a significant number of Ukrainian soldiers having surrendered. “We still hold that Ukrainian forces are in Mariupol and defending it.”

Russia categorically rejected Biden’s claims of “genocide” in Ukraine. Dmitry Peskov, a Russian presidential spokesperson said that it was unacceptable for Biden to try to distort the situation. “This is hardly acceptable for the president of the United States of America.”

U.N. officials are judicious in using the term genocide; the world body has noted that it is frequently misused “in referring to large scale, grave crimes committed against particular populations.” Only a few incidents have been defined as genocide by judicial bodies, the United Nations said, including the 1994 killings of the minority Tutsi in Rwanda.

Amid the semantical debate over genocide, there were also signs that European countries were coming closer together in the way they view the threat from Russia. Finland’s and Sweden’s leaders said that they are re-examinating their decision to leave NATO, the Western military alliance.

Prime Minister Sanna Marin said Finland’s decision will be made in coming weeks. At a Stockholm news conference, she stated that there are many perspectives on whether to apply NATO membership. “But I think our process will be quite fast.”

Advocates for Ukraine said it was important for the West to underscore shared interests, such as deterring Russia, rather than internal disputes.

“There is a risk that the U.S., France and other friends of Ukraine will now waste time parsing the exact status of the atrocities in Ukraine,” said Gowan, of the International Crisis Group. “Do not let a terminological argument over what constitutes genocide distract from the concrete policies needed to stop the dying, whatever you call it.”

Biden authorized an additional $800 million in security assistance for Ukraine on Wednesday, which he said will include “many of the highly effective weapons systems we have already provided and new capabilities tailored to the wider assault we expect Russia to launch in eastern Ukraine.”

The Pentagon said the package will include Mi-17 helicopters along with 18 howitzers that are 155mm, 40,000 artillery rounds and 300 switchblade drones.

The arms transfers also come with U.S.-provided training for small groups of Ukrainian troops, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said after the president’s announcement — marking a resumption of direct training of the Ukrainian military, which had largely stopped with the Russian invasion. Kirby stated that no U.S. troops would enter Ukraine.

“We’re still working through what those options are going to look like, what that training is going to look like, how many U.S. troops are going to be involved in it, where is it going to be, how long. “It’s going depend,” Kirby said to reporters.

The European Council said it agreed to 500 million euros ($544 million) in additional support for Ukrainian forces.

Suliman and Hassan reported from London. This report was contributed by Rick Noack, Bryan Pietsch, Felicia Sonmez, Reis Thebault, and Brittany Shammas in Seoul.

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