Moscow said that it is “unacceptable” for US President Joe Biden to use the word “genocide” to describe Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and has accused Washington of hypocrisy over its own crimes.
“We categorically disagree and consider unacceptable any attempt to distort the situation in this way,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday.
“This is hardly acceptable from a president of the United States, a country that has committed well-known crimes in recent times,” Peskov said.
Biden on Tuesday accused Russian forces of committing “genocide” in Ukraine, the first time his administration has used the term for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Yes, I called it genocide because it has become clearer and clearer that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of being able to be Ukrainian and the evidence is mounting,” Biden said.
Biden said it would ultimately be up to courts to determine whether Russia’s actions against its pro-Western neighbour constitute genocide.
Putin on Tuesday also dismissed as “fake” the accusations that his army committed war crimes in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, where mass graves were found after Russian troops withdrew.
Moscow has accused Ukraine of staging the alleged atrocities uncovered in Bucha.
The crime of genocide has a strict legal definition and has rarely been proven in court since it was cemented in international law after the Holocaust was carried out against Jewish people and other groups by Nazi Germany during World War II. The 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention defines the term as crimes committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.
Genocide is harder to prove than other violations of international humanitarian law, such as war crimes and crimes against humanity, because it requires evidence of specific intent.
Three cases have met that threshold: the Cambodian Khmer Rouge’s 1970s slaughter of minority Cham and Vietnamese people, who were among an estimated 1.7 million who died under the regime; the 1994 mass killing of Tutsis in Rwanda that left 800,000 dead; and the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Bosnia.
Acts comprising the crime of genocide, alongside killing members of a specific group, include causing serious bodily or mental harm, creating conditions calculated to destroy them, preventing births, or forcibly transferring their children to other groups.
Zelenskyy praises Biden
Biden’s “genocide” remark drew praise from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has encouraged Western leaders to use the term to describe Russia’s invasion of his country. Zelenskyy has already done so various times.
“True words of a true leader @POTUS [president of the United States],” the Ukrainian president tweeted on Tuesday.
“Calling things by their names is essential to stand up to evil. We are grateful for US assistance provided so far and we urgently need more heavy weapons to prevent further Russian atrocities,” Zelenskyy said.
Biden had previously called Putin a “war criminal”, a comment Moscow angrily rejected and said had brought relations with the US to the brink of collapse.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also said last week that the scale of atrocities in Ukraine “doesn’t look far short of genocide”.
French President Emmanuel Macron was more circumspect on the subject of genocide on Wednesday.
“I am prudent with terms today,” Macron said.
“Genocide has a meaning … It’s madness what’s happening today. It is unbelievable brutality and a return to war in Europe. But at the same time, I look at the facts, and I want to continue to try the utmost to be able to stop the war and restore peace. I’m not sure if the escalation of words serves our cause,” he said.
Macron said, however, that it has been established that the Russian army has committed war crimes in Ukraine.
The Hague-based International Criminal Court opened an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine in February.
Ukrainian prosecutors, already investigating alleged Russian crimes since the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russian-backed forces, said they have identified thousands of potential war crimes since Moscow’s invasion started on February 24, and they have compiled a list of hundreds of suspects.
Moscow’s incursion into Ukraine, the biggest attack on a European state since 1945, has seen more than 4.6 million people flee the country, resulted in thousands killed and wounded, and left Russia increasingly isolated on the world stage.