Biden says Russia committing 'genocide' in Ukraine

Pentagon has not confirmed reports of chemical weapons use by Russia

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US President Joe Biden on Tuesday said Russia’s war in Ukraine amounted to "genocide", accusing President Vladimir Putin of trying to “wipe out the idea of even being a Ukrainian".

“Yes, I called it genocide,” he told reporters in Iowa shortly before boarding Air Force One to return to Washington after an earlier event to talk about high petrol costs that he called the "Putin price".

“It’s become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of even being a Ukrainian.”

At the earlier event in Iowa, Mr Biden had implied that he thought Mr Putin was carrying out genocide against Ukraine, but offered no details.

Neither he nor his administration announced new consequences for Russia or assistance to Ukraine following the public assessment.

Mr Biden’s comments drew praise from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had encouraged western leaders to use the term to describe Russia’s invasion of his country.

“True words of a true leader @POTUS,” he tweeted.

“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.”

Mr Biden said it would be up to lawyers to decide if Russia’s conduct met the international standard for genocide, as Ukrainian officials have claimed, but said “it sure seems that way to me".

“More evidence is coming out literally of the horrible things that the Russians have done in Ukraine, and we’re only going to learn more and more about the devastation and let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies,” he said.

The Biden administration has sought to blame sharp rises at US petrol stations on Mr Putin's invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, during which Russian troops have been accused of committing atrocities against civilians.

Ukraine has been accusing Russia of committing war crimes since even before the discovery of hundreds of civilians reportedly killed in Bucha sparked an outpouring of revulsion.

Mr Biden described Mr Putin as a "war criminal" last week amid the global outrage and called on him to face trial over the alleged atrocity.

But the US has stopped short of using the term "genocide", in line with longstanding protocol, because of its strict legal definition and the heavy implication the accusation carries.

Mr Biden earlier spoke to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and discussed boosting military and economic support to Ukraine, as well as the need to end western reliance on Russian oil and gas, a spokeswoman for Mr Johnson's office said.

Western nations are investigating claims that Russia may have used chemical weapons in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

The Pentagon said it had not confirmed this.

"The leaders discussed the need to accelerate assistance to Ukraine, including bolstering military and economic support, as the Ukrainian forces prepare for another Russian onslaught in the east of the country," a Downing Street spokeswoman said.

The White House said the two men "affirmed their commitment to continue providing security and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine in the face of ongoing atrocities by Russia".

The Pentagon meanwhile reported movement by Russia's 13-kilometre-long military convoy outside the eastern Ukrainian city of Izyum.

A senior US defence official said the convoy is now 60km north of Izyum and satellite images captured on Monday show it travelling south towards the Donbas region.

“We do assess that it's moving, but not at breakneck speed,” the official said.

The official added that there have been no “indications that the Ukrainians have attempted attacks on the convoy”.

Izyum is under Russian control and is central to Moscow's tactical shift in moving its battle forces east to carry out an offensive in Donbas.

The US official did not confirm reports of heavy Ukrainian losses in the city of Mariupol nor those of Russia’s reported use of chemical weapons.

“We're still trying to monitor that these reports but we cannot confirm the use of chemical agents. At this time, we’re still evaluating,” the official said.

The official noted, however, that Russia has a “history of using chemical agents”.

“We're taking [the reports] seriously,” the official said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the Pentagon's view.

"We're in direct conversation with partners to try to determine what actually has happened," Mr Blinken told reporters, adding that it had been a focus of concern even before Russia moved its troops into Ukraine.

He said the US “had credible information that Russian forces may use a variety of riot control agents."

These could include "tear gas mixed with chemical agents that would cause stronger symptoms to weaken and incapacitate entrenched Ukrainian fighters and civilians, as part of the aggressive campaign to take Mariupol," the US top diplomat said.

On Monday, Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger said his country will consider providing Soviet-made MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine if alternative protection of its own air space can be arranged.

Asked about the proposal, the senior US defence official said Washington would not stand in the way.

"We certainly would not object to it. We have no right to object to it," the official said, adding that this would be a decision for the governments of Ukraine and Slovakia to make.

But the official said there are no conversations with the Slovak side about any possible transfer of US jets to Slovakia to make up for the MiGs potentially going to Ukraine.

Slovakia has already given Ukraine its Soviet-designed S-300 air defence system. The US deployed a Patriot missile system in return.

The official estimated that Russia has fired about 1,540 missiles during the conflict, which is now in its seventh week.

The Pentagon is continuing to deliver weapons to Ukraine, with another shipment expected to arrive in the next 24 hours, the official said.

The rest of the promised $800 million in aid will arrive by the end of the week, the official added.

Updated: April 13, 2022, 6:19 AM