The White House has doubled down on its condemnation of Russian targeting of Ukrainian civilians as war crimes, describing recent events including Friday’s missile strike on a railway station as “cruel and criminal and evil” – but stopping short of classifying the brutal attacks as genocide.
Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, took to the TV political shows on Sunday to decry Russia’s “systematic targeting of civilians, the grisly murder of innocent people, the brutality, the depravity” in Ukraine.
He said recent atrocities “absolutely constitutes war crimes”.
But speaking on CNN’s State of the Union, he declined to categorise the horrors of Russia’s war as “genocide”.
Asked if recent attacks could be described as anything but genocide, Sullivan replied: “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.”
Sullivan elaborated on his unwillingness to wield the term “genocide” in an interview with ABC’s This Week. He said the state department would gather evidence through its specialist unit and in time make a legal analysis according to the definition of genocide under international law.
“We haven’t reached a determination on genocide,” he said. “That is a determination that we work through systematically.”
Debate about how to frame Russia’s attacks on civilians – and with it how to proceed against Vladimir Putin and other top Russians in any future international prosecutions – have intensified after the missile strike on Kramatorsk railway station in eastern Ukraine. At least 50 people including five children were killed.
Genocide was first codified in international law in 1948 through the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide adopted by the general assembly of the United Nations. Under the UN definition, genocide includes killing and otherwise inflicting destruction “in whole or in part” on “a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.
The need to prove a conscious assault against an entire group of people sets the legal burden very high. By contrast, “war crimes” are defined under international law as a range of specific acts that are more easily prosecuted including “wilful killing”, torture or inhuman treatment, destruction of property and violation of the rights of prisoners of war.
Investigations are under way to gather evidence of possible war crimes relating to the brutal Russian campaign. They include efforts in the Ukrainian town of Bucha where mass graves were found following the withdrawal of Russian troops.
In the wake of the Bucha atrocities, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, accused Russia of genocide. But Biden has side-stepped the term while embracing another highly fraught legal concept under international law by accusing Putin personally of being a “war criminal”.
In Congress, politicians of both main parties have been willing to embrace the idea that genocide is unfolding in Ukraine.
The Democratic majority leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, said last week: “When we murder wantonly innocent civilians because of who they are, whether it be their religion, race, or nationality, that is genocide. And Mr Putin is guilty of it.”
On Sunday, Liz Cheney, a Republican member of Congress from Wyoming, also evoked genocide.
“This is clearly genocide,” she told CNN, adding that Europe needed to understand that it was funding Putin’s “genocidal campaign” by buying Russian oil and gas.