President Joe Biden’s declaration Tuesday that atrocities underway in Ukraine constitute a “genocide” is not expected to trigger any immediate changes to US policy toward the conflict, US officials familiar with the matter say.
Instead, Biden’s remark – which he said fell short of an official legal declaration – reflected his escalating outrage at scenes of brutality emerging as Russian troops leave Ukrainian cities ravaged.
The comment came before an expected move by the US on Wednesday to unveil its latest tranche of military assistance to Ukraine, a package that comes in at $800 million and included helicopters, armored vehicles, drones and other weapons.
And Biden’s remark drew immediate praise from Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, with whom Biden spoke by telephone for about an hour Wednesday.
“Assessed Russian war crimes. Discussed additional package of defensive and possible macro-financial aid. Agreed to enhance sanctions,” Zelensky wrote on Twitter afterward.
Yet Biden’s assertion that genocide is underway – his first time using that term to describe the savagery in Ukraine – did not appear to alter his long-held stance that US forces will not directly intervene to end the suffering.
Speaking in Iowa, Biden made it clear he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is committing genocide but said he would “let the lawyers decide” to use that designation internationally.
“It sure seems that way to me,” Biden said. He cited mounting evidence over the past week for his determination, saying it had become “clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of even being able to be Ukrainian.”
Still, by noting the lawyers would make the ultimate determination, Biden was signaling the US is not yet registering a formal declaration of genocide, the officials said.
“President Biden spoke from his heart when he called what we are seeing in Ukraine genocide by the Russian Federation and its forces,” said Victoria Nuland, the under secretary of state for political affairs, on CNN. “In order to make a formal US government policy decision with regard to genocide, we have a process of collecting evidence over time and we are continuing to do that.”
Nuland predicted the US would eventually find a genocide taking place in Ukraine and make the declaration officially. But she noted, “There’s certain legal obligations that come with a formal determination of genocide.”
The US has only made eight formal determinations of genocide, most recently applying that label to Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya minority.
That process took years, including a considerable amount of evidence-gathering and a lengthy back-and-forth between administration lawyers and officials over the potential ramification of applying the label. Similarly, the declaration in 2021 that China is committing genocide against Uyghur Muslims in the western Xinjiang province was preceded by extensive deliberations among State Department lawyers.
In both cases, political considerations came into play, according to people familiar with the matter. Lawyers were initially wary that China’s actions in Xinjiang rose to the level of genocide, though Biden reaffirmed the label when he took office.
And some officials raised concerns that labeling the atrocities in Myanmar a genocide could drive the country close to Beijing, though those concerns ultimately lost out to pressure from human rights advocates and US lawmakers to make the designation last month.
Before Biden’s comments on Tuesday, his aides held up the Myanmar designation of an example of the process they would use to determine if a genocide was happening in Ukraine.
“That was a lengthy process based on an amassing of evidence over a considerable period of time and involving, frankly, mass death, the mass incarceration of a significant portion of the Rohingya population,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said last week. “And we will look to a series of indicators along those lines to ultimately make a determination in Ukraine.”
Appearing Sunday on CNN, Sullivan sought to downplay the significant of labeling Russian atrocities a genocide.
“In my opinion, the label is less important than the fact that these acts are cruel and criminal and wrong and evil and need to be responded to decisively,” he told Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”
American hesitance at calling atrocities “genocide” is rooted in the term’s strict legal definition, which was written following the Holocaust in 1948. The United Nations Genocide Convention defines genocide as crimes committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
The convention spells out specific acts that constitute genocide: “Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
The United Nations, on its website, says establishing intent is “the most difficult element to determine” when declaring a genocide is underway.
And the international convention obligates countries to intervene once a genocide is determined to be underway, stating, “Genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.”
Biden has remained firm that US troops, either acting alone or as part of NATO, will not engage directly in the conflict, suggesting intervening militarily could trigger “World War III.”
Already, Biden’s use of the word genocide has drawn some blowback from a key US ally.
“I want to continue to try, as much as I can, to stop this war and rebuild peace. I am not sure that an escalation of rhetoric serves that cause,” French President Emmanuel Macron said Wednesday.
In Ukraine, Biden’s remark was welcomed by Zelensky, who tweeted praise for Biden’s comment almost immediately.
“True words of a true leader,” he wrote. “Calling things by their names is essential to stand up to evil. We are grateful for US assistance provided so far and we urgently need more heavy weapons to prevent further Russian atrocities.”