President Joe Biden told reporters on Wednesday that he believed Russian president Vladimir Putin to be a “war criminal” for the actions he ordered in Ukraine. It was the first time that Biden had personally accused Putin of complicity in war crimes during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The exchange took place during a crowded White House function, in which a reporter asked Biden if he was “ready” to call Putin a war criminal. The president initially responded “No,” before circling back to clarify what the reporter had asked. She repeated the question, and Biden answered, “Oh, I think he is a war criminal,” before leaving without elaboration.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki explained Biden’s remarks in a press briefing later in the day.
“He was speaking from his heart and speaking from what he’s seen on television, which is barbaric actions by a brutal dictator, through his invasion of a foreign country,” Psaki said.
Psaki also said that the State Department had procedures to identify war criminals and other violators of international law, and had opened an investigation into Russian forces’ activities in Ukraine.
Biden’s comment came hours after Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and other high-level Ukrainian officials met with a prosecutor from the International Criminal Court, which has opened an investigation into war crimes during the conflict. The Ukrainian leader also gave a speech to a bipartisan group of legislators from both houses of Congress on Wednesday, in which he lauded the U.S. for its material and financial support for Ukraine but urged it to create a no-fly zone in Ukrainian airspace. Most U.S. experts and policymakers have dismissed a no-fly zone as infeasible due to the possibility of direct military confrontation between Russia and the West.
Biden’s comments came one day after the Senate passed a nonbinding resolution to investigate possible war crimes committed by Russian forces. The vote passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority and was lauded by leaders from both sides of the aisle. Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who voted in favor of the resolution, told CNN after the vote that U.S. officials should “absolutely” refer to Putin as a war criminal, noting that Russian forces had intentionally attacked populated civilian buildings and hospitals during the invasion.
The Kremlin denounced Biden’s remarks, which spokesman Dmitry Peskov called “unacceptable and unforgivable.”
Peskov also argued that Biden and his predecessors in office could also deserve the label, as the U.S. military had “killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world” in its "Global War on Terror" in the two decades following the September 11 attacks.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.