President Joe Biden is getting both praise and criticism after doubling down on describing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine as “genocide” — the first time he’s used the term since the invasion began nearly 50 days ago — even as Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for weeks has claimed that is what’s happening on the ground.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended his use of the term, as she did when Biden called Putin a “war criminal” and when he said “cannot remain in power,” saying Wednesday the president was simply expressing “what he feels.”
“The president was speaking to what we all see, and what he feels as clear as day in terms of the atrocities happening on the ground, as he also noted yesterday,” Psaki said, before tempering his use of the term. “Of course, there will be a legal process that plays out in the courtroom but he was speaking to what he has seen on the ground, what we have all seen in terms of the atrocities on the ground.”
Pressed directly on whether Biden’s comments might conflict with the U.S. policy, Psaki dismissed concerns and repeated the requirement of a “legal process” which can sometimes take years.
“He was not getting ahead of that. He was speaking on what he feels he sees on the ground,” she said.
“I do not think anybody is confused about the atrocities we are seeing on the ground — and different leaders around the world describe it in different ways,” Psaki added later on. “It is unquestionable that what we are seeing is horrific, the targeting of civilians, hospitals, children. The president was calling it like he sees it, and that is what he does.”
State Department spokesperson Ned Price gave a similar line at his briefing Wednesday, saying Biden used the term based on “impressions that he has seen and that we all have seen,” but noted the U.S. is working with international lawyers to determine if Russia’s crimes meet the legal threshold.
During prepared remarks in Iowa Tuesday blaming inflation and gas prices on “Putin’s price hike,” Biden said, for the first time, “Your family budget, your ability to fill up your tank, none of it should on hinge on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide half a world away.”
President Joe Biden speaks to reporters before boarding Air Force One at Des Moines International Airport, in Des Moines, Iowa, on April 12, 2022, en route to Washington, D.C.
© Carolyn Kaster/AP President Joe Biden speaks to reporters before boarding Air Force One at Des Moines International Airport, in Des Moines, Iowa, on April 12, 2022, en route to Washington, D.C.
His use of the word raised questions among Washington reporters about whether it was an ad-libbed moment or a policy shift from the White House — until Biden later insisted he meant exactly what said.
“Yes, I called it genocide,” Biden told reporters after his remarks. “Because it has become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of even being able to be a Ukrainian. And the evidence is mounting. It’s different than it was last week, the more evidence is coming out of the — literally, the horrible things that the Russians have done in Ukraine and we’re going to only learn more and more about the devastation.”
Genocide is defined as an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” according to the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Biden went on to acknowledge the U.S. government has an internal, legal process for designating whether genocide has occurred but still stood by what he indicated was his opinion.
“We’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies, but it sure seems that way to me,” Biden added.
Journalists gather as bodies are exhumed from a mass-grave in the grounds of the St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints church in the town of Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, Urkaine, on April 13, 2022.
© Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images Journalists gather as bodies are exhumed from a mass-grave in the grounds of the St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints church in the town of Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, Urkaine, on April 13, 2022.
Zelenskyy has argued — and pleaded — for weeks that Russia has met this definition and called on Western leaders to use the same term, so was quick to applaud Biden’s comments as “true words of a true leader.”
The Kremlin, meanwhile, blasted the comment as Putin indicated this week indicated his invasion won’t stop until his goals are met and said peace talks with Kyiv had reached a “dead end.”
“We consider this kind of effort to distort the situation unacceptable,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday. “This is hardly acceptable from a president of the United States, a country that has committed well-known crimes in recent times.”
It’s not clear how many Western leaders will go as far as Biden and Zelenskyy — or what will take for them to reach the same conclusion.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting on the development of the Russian Arctic zone via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, on April 13, 2022.
© Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting on the development of the Russian Arctic zone via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, on April 13, 2022.
No other Western nations have made the determination, aside from Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tying Russia’s crimes to the term in a tweet. French President Emmanuel Macron suggested Wednesday he’s more “careful” with his words than the American president, saying only that “war crimes” have been confirmed.
“So far, it has been established that war crimes were committed by the Russian army and that it is now necessary to find those responsible and bring them to justice,” Macron told France 2 in an interview.
“I am very careful with some terms [genocide] these days,” he added. “I’m not sure the escalation of words is helping the cause right now.”
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Asked directly by ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Mary Bruce about Macron’s criticism Wednesday, Psaki declined to comment.
Macron also rebuked Biden’s language last month, when asked about Biden calling Putin a “butcher” and saying he “cannot remain in power” during remarks in Warsaw.
“I wouldn’t use those terms, because I continue to speak to President Putin,” Macron said in another interview with France 3. “Because what do we want to do collectively? We want to stop the war that Russia launched in Ukraine, without waging war and without escalation.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in his office in Kyiv, Ukraine, April 9, 2022.
© Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in his office in Kyiv, Ukraine, April 9, 2022.
Biden stood by his words then, saying he was “expressing moral outrage” but also clarified that he wasn’t “articulating a policy change” amid some fallout.
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It’s unclear now what pushed Biden to change his stance on using the term “genocide” — because asked directly last week if he thought the atrocities documented in Bucha were genocide, he said no.
“I got criticized for calling Putin a war criminal. Well, the truth of the matter, you saw what happened in Bucha,” Biden said on April 4. “He is a war criminal — but we have to gather the information, we have to continue to provide Ukraine with the weapons they need to continue to fight, and we have to gather all the detail so this could be an actual — have a war crime trial. This guy is brutal. What’s happening in Bucha is outrageous, and everyone sees it.”
Asked directly, “You agree this is genocide?”
“No, it is a war crime,” Biden replied.
A man lights a candle during a Sunday service in an Orthodox church in Bucha, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, April 10, 2022.
© Rodrigo Abd/AP A man lights a candle during a Sunday service in an Orthodox church in Bucha, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, April 10, 2022.
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White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan followed Biden’s comment the same day by saying the administration had not yet seen the “systematic deprivation of life” necessary to meet the definition of genocide.
“This is something we, of course, continue to monitor every day. Based on what we have seen so far, we have seen atrocities, we have seen war crimes. We have not yet seen a level of systematic deprivation of life of the Ukrainian people to rise to the level of genocide,” Sullivan said.
ABC News Conor Finnegan, Sarah Kolinovsky, Molly Nagle and Luis Martinez contributed to this report.