President Joe Biden was on his way out the door last week after an impromptu gathering with reporters when he was asked yet again if his Russian counterpart was a “war criminal.” Biden replied with a perfunctory “no,” which came as no surprise. The White House and the Pentagon had both been reluctant to confirm the allegations leveled by Biden’s secretary of state and UN ambassador affirming Vladimir Putin’s guilt in crimes against humanity. Suddenly, Biden wheeled around and contradicted himself. “Oh, I think he is a war criminal,” the president said.
The improvised dramaturgy of the president’s about-face on Putin’s complicity in war crimes leaves observers to wonder whether this was a considered strategic decision by the White House. By branding Putin a war criminal, Biden has raised the stakes of the conflict that the Russian president inaugurated. Haunted as he is by Russia’s historic humiliations, Putin surely remembers how Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and his subordinates were handed over to The Hague by a successor regime. Preserving his hold on power is now an existential issue for Putin, as is his war in Ukraine. A Russian defeat would undermine Putin’s viability in the Kremlin.
In endorsing the charge of war crimes, though, the American administration has closed off one of the remaining avenues the Russian regime might have used to deescalate the crisis in Europe. That’s fraught, but what else could the administration do? After all, they’re right.
Within a week after the outbreak of fighting in Ukraine, the American diplomatic corps began leveling accusations of war crimes—some of which were plainly fueled by emotion rather than a prosecutorial review of Russian conduct. A mechanized assault on a Ukrainian nuclear plant, for example, was labeled by the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv “a war crime.” The State Department, which operates that mission, reportedly tamped down that claim, as it should have. UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield was on firmer ground when she accused Russia of using “cluster munitions and vacuum bombs” against civilian targets, warning the soldiers charged with carrying out those orders to “not commit war crimes.” But the Defense Department and the White House refused to fully endorse her accusation.
Now, however, nearly a month into the war, it is impossible to avoid acknowledging that banned munitions are being used on the battlefield and in populated areas of Ukraine. International monitoring and human-rights groups have verified through interviews with dozens of witnesses and analysis of photographic and video evidence the use of fragmentation submunitions in civilian centers. The Kremlin has confirmed the use of thermobaric weapons in Ukraine. As Russian battlefield losses mount and the conflict settles into a protracted stalemate, Russia’s use of even conventional ordnance has become more indiscriminate.
Surrounded but unwilling to surrender, the cities of Chernihiv and Mariupol are being razed to the ground by Russian missiles, bombs, and long-range artillery. Under assault but still suppliable, Russian forces are bombing the metropolises of Kharkiv and Kyiv into submission. Local officials in Mariupol allege that Russian forces deliberately attacked civilian shelters including an art school and a historic theater, where the Russian word for “children” was scrawled in the parking lot in letters large enough to be legible from space. In Kyiv, Russian forces shelled a 10-story shopping mall into oblivion. The World Health Organization has documented more than 40 attacks on hospitals and health-care facilities, and the investigative group Bellingcat’s interactive feature documenting alleged assaults on civilian infrastructure includes mountains of graphic evidence supporting accusations about the inhumane conduct of Russian forces in Ukraine.
Reliable reporting from inside the areas of Ukraine successfully occupied by Russian forces is hard to come by, but the few dispatches that have reached the outside world paint a haunting portrait.
A Ukrainian government official has alleged that Russian armed forces have taken “between 4,000 and 4,500 Mariupol residents forcibly across the border to Taganrog,” a Russian city near Ukraine’s border. There, the official added, Ukrainians are stripped of their passports and are being housed in what the Mariupol city council alleges are “filtration camps.” The New York Times, which reported on the allegations, has not verified the claims but notes they are “supported by testimony” of other refugees.
Those allegations are rendered believable by the fates suffered by Ukrainian officials who find themselves behind enemy lines. Ukraine has accused Russian forces of abducting local elected officials and replacing them with pliant pro-Russian functionaries. One such official, Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov, was liberated from Russian custody and has been talking to Western media about his ordeal. Coupled with growing video evidence indicating that Russian forces are mistreating and even firing on pro-Ukrainian demonstrators protesting their occupation, Russia stands credibly accused not just of human-rights violations but the ethnic cleansing of the territories it controls.
It is understandable that Western officials feel morally obliged to acknowledge the horrors they’re seeing Russia preside over in Ukraine even if that complicates the West’s efforts to provide Putin with a pathway out of the crisis he started. Moscow has warned that U.S.-Russian relations are “on the brink.” Russia may sever diplomatic ties with Washington in response to Biden’s comments. This is a complicating feature of an already complex conflict, but the Russian military’s conduct in Ukraine has forced the West’s hand.
Russia has constructed an alternative universe in which its actions are justified, circumspect, and welcomed by the people they’re tormenting. The West should not create its own fantasy world, too, just because it would be a more pleasant place to live. Opponents of Russia’s conduct in Ukraine must fearlessly advocate for the truth of this war because it is criminal.