President Joe Biden’s statement this week that Russia is committing “genocide” in Ukraine raised concerns among some officials in his own administration and has so far not been corroborated by information collected by US intelligence agencies, according to senior administration officials.
At the State Department, which is tasked with making formal genocide and war crimes determinations through an independent legal process, two officials said Biden’s seemingly offhand statement during a domestic policy speech in Iowa on Tuesday made it difficult for the agency did its job credibly. worked.
US intelligence agencies collect information when allegations are made of actions that could amount to genocide, but politicians are the ones who really decide whether or not to declare it. Intelligence reports on Ukraine do not currently support a genocide designation, officials said.
“Genocide includes the goal of destroying an ethnic group or a nation, and so far that is not what we are seeing,” a US intelligence official said.
However, there is concern within the intelligence community that Russia’s actions in the next phase of the war could amount to genocide, and one official said that assessment could be part of what prompted Biden to take a public stand. who is ahead of his own government.
The question of when to label Russia’s actions in Ukraine “genocide,” particularly the legal threshold for doing so, has been discussed inside the White House since images of mass graves and the torture and killing of civilians in Bucha emerged, people familiar with the matter said. 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 is happening in Ukraine “genocide,” but they were surprised that he did so casually. in a speech in Iowa on inflation, the people said.
A spokesperson for the White House 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 the Russians responsible for the atrocities and war crimes. that have been committed. in Ukraine so 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 declaration of 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 and his own government.
Biden said that Russia was committing war crimes in Ukraine, another symbolically and legally significant moment in which he got ahead of his own administration, a week before the US government completed its legal process and formally made that statement.
Biden also said Russian President Vladimir Putin should no longer be in power, prompting a scramble from his aides to say that’s not what he meant and to emphasize that US policy is not regime change in Moscow. Biden later said that he meant what he said, that it was his “personal” point of view, but not US policy.
Clarifying that he was expressing his personal point of view by calling the situation in Ukraine a genocide, Biden said “more evidence is emerging” about Russia’s actions there. “And we’re just going to learn more and more about the devastation,” she said. “And we’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether he qualifies or not, but it sure looks that way to me.”
While some officials greeted Biden’s comments with trepidation, particularly after his aides emphasized the lengthy legal diligence required to make such an appointment, others welcomed his public statement, the officials said.
People familiar with the internal discussions said Biden felt he and his aides were too slow to call Russia’s actions in Ukraine war crimes and label Putin a war criminal, and that he did not want to be left behind in what he said. think it is genocide. .
The president believes that Ukraine is a crisis that is evolving too quickly to move at the pace of the bureaucracy, these people said. So, as administration officials debate these issues and work through laborious legal processes, he felt the need to speak up to reflect the moment, they said, and believes history will prove him right.
“These are not mistakes,” said a person close to the White House. “He is doing this with a lot of purpose.”
In response to questions about Biden’s genocide declaration, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters this week: “The president meant it the way he saw it, and that’s what he does.”
The apparent disconnect between the president and the bureaucracy he oversees is surprising given Biden’s extensive experience in foreign policy and government. Biden has also emphasized since the 2020 campaign that “a president’s words matter.” And he has gone to great lengths to say that he would not seek to influence independent Justice Department decisions, but some administration officials see a willingness for him to do just that with other independent legal proceedings.
Once the president says he believes genocide and war crimes have been committed, administration officials say that puts great pressure on career government officials to come to the same conclusion. The concern is that if the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice reaches those conclusions on its own, it risks being late to the game or as if it were trying to justify Biden’s public comments, the officials said.
One of the administration officials said Biden’s comments had put particular pressure on Beth Van Schaack, the US ambassador for global criminal justice, who was confirmed by the Senate last month. On Friday, Schaack met with Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova to compare notes as Venediktvoa’s office investigates alleged war crimes committed by Russia. Venediktova, like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has already accused Russia of genocide in Ukraine.
US intelligence shows 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, raising concerns about the genocide, authorities said. The Russians have also been told the same about the Ukrainians in Mariupol, the officials said, with one noting how brutal Moscow’s military campaign there has been.
Genocide is a specific crime defined by international law, and proving it requires demonstrating intent to commit genocide at high levels.
Biden’s initial accusation against Russia, which was welcomed by Zelenskyy, preempted even human rights organizations that 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 Russian genocidal campaign, according to Tara Sepehri Far, acting deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Washington office.
“Our research still does not match the definition,” Sepehri Far said. “It doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”
Throughout his decades-long career, Biden has at times been quicker than others in the US government to speak out on genocide.
As a US senator, whose words carried weight, but not as much as those of the commander-in-chief, he was often ahead of his colleagues. In June 1994, when the Clinton administration avoided calling the mass murder in Rwanda genocide, Biden, then a senator, joined other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in insisting that he was.
“Reliable reports, in fact, not contradicted, prove that this is, in fact, a planned campaign of genocide,” the senators wrote in a joint letter.
Around the same time, Biden was among the strongest voices in American politics calling for strong international intervention in the Bosnian war. In June 1994, Biden joined Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican from Kansas, on a visit to then-besieged Sarajevo. The following year, Biden co-sponsored Dole’s landmark legislation lifting the US arms embargo on Bosnia and Herzegovina. A decade later, Biden was one of eight co-sponsors of legislation commemorating the Srebrenica massacre as genocide.
Last year, Biden became the first president to formally recognize the mass killing of Armenians during World War I as genocide, more than a century after the fact. The landmark move fulfilled a long-sought wish by the Armenian diaspora but angered NATO ally Turkey, whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan implored Biden to withdraw it.
As president, Biden’s words carry more weight and jumping ahead of a formal legal process could taint the ultimate goal of holding regimes like Russia accountable, Sepehri Far said.
“It is extremely important that the United States lead in establishing the authoritative truth,” he said. “You don’t want to use the word without being able to fully endorse it and roll it out, because otherwise there’s a danger that it might not be taken seriously.”