US President Joe Biden termed his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” during a press conference in the White House on Wednesday, a move that would likely escalate the already tense situation between the two countries. It was the first time since the Russian invasion of Ukraine that Biden used such language against Putin. In a subsequent statement, the White House said that the US president was “speaking from his heart”, rather than making an official declaration. In a chilly response, Kremlin said that it was “unforgivable rhetoric.”
“We believe such rhetoric to be unacceptable and unforgivable on the part of the head of a state, whose bombs have killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Russian state news agency Tass.
The exchange in Washington happened after a reporter asked an off-the-cuff question from the US president. “Mr President, after everything we have seen, are you ready to call Putin a war criminal?” the reporter asked. The president initially replied “no” but after being challenged, he changed his reply, saying: “Did you ask me whether I would tell ….? Oh, I think he is a war criminal.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki later said the president had been speaking from his heart after seeing “barbaric” images of the violence in Ukraine, rather than making any official declaration. She said that there was a separate legal process, run by the US State Department, to determine war crimes, and that was ongoing separately.
Biden’s official Twitter account posted: “Putin is inflicting appalling devastation and horror on Ukraine – bombing apartment buildings and maternity wards… these are atrocities. It is an outrage to the world.”
Biden’s off-the-cuff remark came as a surprise to analysts and experts who argue that by using such harsh language against Putin, the US president has set ablaze another diplomatic bridge between Russia and America. Analysts argue that this will make it harder for the United States to work with Putin’s Russia going forward as the last diplomatic threads between the two countries are being severed. Every concession or negotiation on any topic will be a challenge to the United States and invite the rejoinder: How can the US associate itself with a criminal regime? There is a possibility that with his stark remark, Biden was accepting the new reality – the political order of the world has irrevocably shifted and there is perhaps no going back.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson have accused Russia of carrying out war crimes but avoided directly calling Putin a war criminal.