President Joe Biden on Wednesday called Vladimir Putin a “war criminal.”
It was a notable shift for Biden and the first time he has labeled his Russian counterpart’s actions in Ukraine in such a way. The president, who has skirted questions on whether Russia has committed war crimes in Ukraine and often refers to ongoing investigations, didn’t mince his words on Wednesday.
“I think he is a war criminal,” Biden told reporters.
The comment followed Biden’s announcement earlier on Wednesday that the U.S. would send an additional $800 million in military aid to Ukraine. His commitment to more aid, which brings the total to $1 billion allocated to the country this week, came after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered an emotional address to Congress. Zelenskyy pleaded with the U.S. and its NATO allies to do more to help his country, whether by enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine or sending jets to aid in its war against Russia.
Biden, during Wednesday’s speech, addressed the nature of the “difficult battle” Ukrainians have faced in the three weeks since Russia launched its assault. The Ukrainian death toll has continued to climb as Russian bombing expands toward the country’s west. More than 700 civilians have been killed the past few weeks, according to the United Nations, and dozens of children have been confirmed dead as of March 15, though these numbers are difficult to track and are likely considerably higher.
“The American people will be steadfast in our support of the people of Ukraine in the face of Putin’s immoral, unethical attacks on civilian populations,” Biden said. “We are united in the abhorrence of depraved onslaught, and we are going to continue to have their backs as they fight for their freedom, their democracy, their very survival.”
White House aides confirmed that Biden had not planned in advance to declare that Putin was a war criminal. The president had taken aides’ advice and not taken questions at his Wednesday morning event when he signed the authorization to send the additional resources to Ukraine.
But at the end of his afternoon event, in which he reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, Biden worked the crowd in the East Room for nearly half an hour before he ended up next to group of gathered reporters. He took one question from a reporter who asked whether Putin was a war criminal. Biden answered no and kept walking.
He returned a moment later and indicated that he realized that he might have misheard the question. When it was repeated, the president answered in the affirmative, becoming the first member of his administration to assign that label to Putin.
Horrifying images have been seen across the world this month. Just this week, it was confirmed that a pregnant woman and her baby died after a maternity hospital was bombed in the southeastern port city of Mariupol last week. Multiple journalists have now been reported dead. Millions of Ukrainians have fled the country, while millions of others are facing a humanitarian crisis within Ukraine’s borders.
Russia is already at the center of multiple investigations opened in recent weeks, including a probe by the U.N., which announced it would open a commission to investigate alleged human rights abuses. U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield was the first Biden administration official to call Russia’s attacks war crimes last week, as world leaders ramp up calls to hold Putin accountable and the U.S. weighs its role in international investigations, particularly when it comes to the International Criminal Court.
ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan announced his court’s probe on March 2, after dozens of member states called for him to take action. The U.S. is not a member of the ICC and has long had a complicated relationship with the court, though the Biden administration is reviewing its policy on the ICC, Foreign Policy reported.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about Biden’s directness, and what changed his assessment of Putin’s attacks. Psaki acknowledged that there is a legal process underway at the State Department, where the agency is documenting and compiling information about the attacks on Ukrainian civilians to reach a conclusion.
“He was speaking from his heart and speaking from what he’s seen on television, which is barbaric actions by a brutal dictator through his invasion of a foreign country,” Psaki said.
Vice President Kamala Harris last week, while in Poland, accused Russia of committing “atrocities,” though stopped short of leveling the accusation as Biden did on Wednesday. She also said the U.S. would participate in investigations by the U.N. to determine whether Russia has committed war crimes.
“Just limit it to what we have seen,” Harris said last week, discussing potential Russian war crimes. “Pregnant women going for health care? Being injured by, I don’t know, a missile? A bomb? In an unprovoked, unjustified war?”
“Absolutely, there should be an investigation,” she added. “And we should all be watching. And I have no question the eyes of the world are on this war and what Russia has done in terms of this aggression and these atrocities. Have no doubt.”
Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.