President Joe Biden’s statement this week that Russia is committing “genocide” at Ukraine He raised concerns in some officials in his government and has not yet been backed up by information collected by US intelligence agencies, according to senior administration officials.
At the State Department, which is charged with making official decisions on genocide and war crimes through an independent legal process, two officials said Biden’s seemingly improvised announcement during a local policy address in Iowa on Tuesday made it difficult for the agency to conduct its credibility. Job.
US intelligence agencies collect information when allegations are made of actions that could amount to genocide, but it is policymakers who actually decide whether to make them public. Officials said that intelligence reports about Ukraine do not currently support the genocide designation.
“Genocide includes the goal of destroying an ethnic group or a nation, and so far, that’s not what we’re 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 before his government.
People familiar with the discussions said the question of when Russia’s actions in Ukraine would be described as “genocide,” and in particular the legal limit to doing so, has been debated inside the White House since the images of mass graves, torture and assassinations of civilians in Bucha appeared. Biden recently began to articulate his views in private, so White House officials weren’t surprised that he called what’s happening in Ukraine a “genocide,” but they were surprised that he did so disingenuously in a speech in Iowa about inflation, People said.
A National Security Council spokesperson told the White House: “We are actively working to assist national and international efforts to document and investigate credible reports of atrocities, analyze evidence, and identify any Russians responsible for atrocities and war crimes committed in Ukraine so that they can be held accountable.”
“We will follow the facts and the law wherever they lead,” a State Department spokesman said in a statement.
Biden’s ‘personal’ views
The president’s declaration of genocide in Ukraine was the third time in recent weeks that the president has attempted to separate what he says are his personal views from official US policy to take a position that he believes is correct even though it is not in line with that of his government.
Biden said Russia is committed war crimes In Ukraine—another symbolically and legally significant moment in which he took over his administration—a week before the US government completed its legal process and formally made this proclamation.
Biden also said that Russian President Vladimir Putin should not remain in power, prompting aides to scramble to say that was not what he meant and emphasized that US policy was not regime change in Moscow. Biden later said he meant what he said – it was his “personal” opinion – but not US policy.
Clarifying that he was expressing his personal view by calling the situation in Ukraine genocide, Biden said “more evidence is emerging” of Russia’s actions there. “And we’ll just learn more and more about the devastation,” he said. “And we’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether he qualifies or not, but it certainly looks like that to me.”
While some officials met Biden’s comments with trepidation, particularly after his aides stressed the lengthy legal due diligence needed to make such a designation, others welcomed his public announcement, officials said.
People familiar with the internal discussions said Biden felt he and his aides were too slow to describe Russia’s actions in Ukraine as war crimes and called Putin a war criminal, and he didn’t want to lag behind what he believed to be genocide. .
These people said the president believes that the Ukraine crisis is developing too fast to move at the pace of the bureaucracy. So, while administration officials were discussing these issues and working through painstaking legal proceedings, he felt the need to speak out to reflect the moment, they said, and believed history would prove him right.
“These are not slips,” said a person close to the White House. “He does this very purposefully.”
In response to questions about declaring Biden’s genocide, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters this week, “The president has been calling it as he sees it, and that’s what he does.”
The apparent disconnect between the president and the bureaucracy he oversees is striking given Biden’s extensive experience in foreign policy and government. Since the 2020 campaign, Biden has also stressed that “the president’s words matter.” He has gone to great lengths to say he will not try to influence the independent Justice Department’s decisions, but some administration officials see his willingness to do so through other independent legal processes.
Once the president says he believes genocide and war crimes have been committed, administration officials said that puts enormous pressure on professional government officials to come to the same conclusion. The concern is that when the State Department’s Global Criminal Justice Office comes to these conclusions on its own, the office risks appearing late in the game or as if trying to justify Biden’s public comments, officials said.
An administration official said Biden’s comments have put particular pressure on Beth Van Schack, the US ambassador for global criminal justice, who was confirmed by the Senate last month. On Friday, Shack met with Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, Irina Venediktova, to compare notes while Venediktvo’s office investigates alleged Russian war crimes by Russia. Venediktova, like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, accused Russia of committing genocide in Ukraine.
Officials said US intelligence shows that the Russians have been told that Ukrainians in the eastern Donbass region, where fighting is expected to intensify, are Nazis and that Ukrainian civilians are Nazi sympathizers, raising fears of genocide. Officials said the Russians were told the same thing about the Ukrainians in Mariupol, and one of them noted how brutal Moscow’s military campaign there was.
Genocide is a specific crime under international law, and its proof requires high levels of intent to commit genocide.
Biden’s early indictment of Russia, which Zelensky welcomed, came before human rights organizations have often led US administrations to declare that a regime had committed genocide.
Human Rights Watch, for example, has yet to find evidence of Russia’s genocidal campaign, according to Tara Sepehri Farr, acting deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Washington office.
“Our research does not match the definition yet,” Sepehri Far said. “That doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”
Biden throughout the decades of his career has been at times quicker than others in the US government to speak out about the genocide.
As an American senator—his words were heavy, but not as heavy as those of the commander in chief—he was often way ahead of his colleagues. In June 1994 when the Clinton administration avoided saying the mass killing in Rwanda was genocide, Biden, then the senator, joined members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in insisting that it do.
“Reliable reports – indeed, not contradictory – prove that this is, in fact, a planned campaign of genocide,” the senators wrote in a joint letter.
At about the same time, Biden was among the most powerful voices in American politics who urged strong international intervention in the war in Bosnia. In June 1994, Biden joined Republican Senator Bob Dole on a visit to Sarajevo, which was under siege. The following year, Biden co-sponsored Dole’s landmark legislation to lift the US arms embargo on Bosnia and Herzegovina. A decade later, Biden was one of eight co-sponsors of legislation to commemorate the Srebrenica massacre as genocide.
Last year, Biden became the first president to officially recognize the mass massacre of Armenians during World War I as a genocide — more than a century after it occurred. This historic move fulfilled a long-awaited wish of the Armenian diaspora, but it angered NATO ally Turkey, whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pleaded with Biden to take it back.
As president, Biden’s words carry more weight, and moving forward with a formal legal process could skew the ultimate goal of holding regimes like Russia to account, Sepehri Farr said.
“It is very important for the United States to lead in establishing the credible truth,” she said. “You don’t want to use the word without being able to fully support and spread it, or else there is a risk of not taking it seriously.”
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