“We have not yet seen a level of systematic deprivation of life of the Ukrainian people to rise to the level of genocide.”
– National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, April 4, 2022.
Here we go again. It took the Biden administration several weeks before recognizing that Russia was guilty of war crimes in Ukraine. How long will it take for the Biden administration to recognize Russia’s genocide in Ukraine?
It took an impromptu and unplanned event in Washington on March 16th for President Joe Biden to refer to Russia’s Vladimir Putin as a “war criminal.” A week later, Biden’s national security team assessed that Russia was indeed guilty of war crimes. (While drafting this essay, I learned that a Russian precision missile with an inscription “for the children” struck a railway station, killing at least 50 women, children, and elderly men seeking humanitarian shelter.)
Biden’s pronouncement that Putin “cannot remain in power,” was also impromptu and unplanned. In view of the well known paranoia and xenophobia of the Russian political culture and Putin’s role as a posture child for that culture, it triggered a particularly harsh reaction from the Kremlin. Russian leaders (as well as the “useful idiots” in the United States who support Russian propaganda) believe that the “color revolutions” between 2003 and 2005 in three former Soviet republics (e.g., Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan) were inspired and led by the United States.
A major problem for Biden’s national security team has been trying to match Biden’s random and spontaneous policy statements toward Ukraine. It typically takes his administration a week or two to catch up. Prior to the invasion, for example, Biden remarked at a press conference that the U.S. response to Russia’s use of force would depend on “whether it’s a minor incursion.” In responding to a more recent question regarding possible Russian use of chemical weapons, Biden emphasized that it “would trigger a response in kind.” A presidential spokesman quickly stated that the United States would not be using chemical weapons in return. Even if National Security Adviser Sullivan genuinely believes the “level of systematic deprivation of life” doesn’t “rise to the level of genocide,” it’s only a matter of time before Biden makes the call.
The Biden team’s belief that the enormity of Russia’s criminal acts has not reached the level of genocide puts them on a par with previous U.S. administrations who mishandled major cases of genocide in the 20th Century. Currently, Biden’s national security wise men presumably believe that genocidal activity must reach the massive level of death and destruction aimed at Armenians, Jews, and Tutsi’s by the Turks, the Germans, and the Rwanda government, respectively. Even then, the Roosevelt administration refused to address the issue of the Holocaust; the Clinton administration did not engage Rwanda; and it took over one hundred years to charge the Ottomans with genocide against the Armenians. The failure of the Israelis to support Ukraine, moreover, puts the lie to “never again.”
In actual fact, the issue of “enormity” has nothing to do with an actual genocide. This week’s Economist, the most authoritative English-language newsweekly, argued that “Investigators are like to find that Russian forces should be indicted, even if they have not killed on such a systematic scale as to have committed genocide.” The Economist has rarely been so obtuse. The key determinants of genocide relate to “intent;” there is no doubt that Putin and his sadistic military are trying to subjugate a nation and to exterminate members of a specific or definable identity group. Like the Nazis 80 years ago, the Russians are trying to extinguish Ukraine as an independent nation. The horrors of Bucha that are being repeated throughout Ukraine certainly resemble the horrors of Babi Yar, which took place in Kiev, and the wanton destruction in Spain by the Nazi’s Condor Legion, which was memorialized in Picasso’s “Guernica,” the international symbol of genocide The United States and its Allies even suppressed the truth about Hitler’s Final Solution during the war. We were bystanders to these genocides, and once again we appear to be bystanders.
Presumably the national security team will try to prevent Biden from recognizing the genocide for what it is because of the political and legal consequences that follow such a charge. The United States would be responsible for collecting evidence and ensuring that Putin and his military command are eventually held accountable. Neither Russia nor the United States are members of the International Criminal Court so it is difficult to believe that the kind of international criminal tribunal that worked against former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic will ever be held. In the short term. however, the charge of genocide could make it more difficult for India, Singapore, and all Persian Gulf countries to remain as fence-sitters (in addition to Israel) in recognizing Russian war crimes or even voting to suspend Russia’s membership on the United National Human Rights Council.
There are two additional problems blocking the United States from declaring Putin’s megalomania and Russia’s sadistic attacks as genocide. Most of the countries of NATO (particularly the two most powerful—the United States and Germany—have signaled their unwillingness to make economic sacrifices on behalf of Ukraine. Our strongest NATO allies are trying to minimize their economic pain in confronting Russia, and most NATO countries—particularly the United States—fear a direct conflict with Russia. The Russians could win this battle (and the next Cold War) because they believe they are superior to the West because they are willing to make personal and economic sacrifices for national security and that the West no longer can.
The refusal to recognize the genocide is another example of the absence of strategic thought and planning in the national security policy of the Biden administration. On the one hand, President Biden is making impromptu and unplanned comments about Putin and Russian foreign policy. On the other hand, Biden has offered Putin carte blanche in Ukraine with a series of statements detailing what actions we would and would not take; what instruments of war we would and would not send into Ukraine; and have emphasized that many actions are unacceptable because they would lead to World War III. The latest defense budget reveals a similar absence of strategic thinking; the only purpose appears to be to increase spending, but what for? Finally, there have been few policy initiatives that challenge or ameliorate the terrible legacy of Donald Trump that included the mishandling of policy toward China and the lack of concern about the importance of an unprecedented Sino-Russia relationship that is aimed at U.S. policy.
The geopolitical and political consequences of U.S. hesitancy will be felt in many ways. Whether or not the United States actually makes the official accusation of genocide, the nature of Russian-American relations will not be the same over the short term. Biden has been calling attention to the contest between democratic and authoritarian states, but his actions thus far will weaken the institutions such as the Geneva Conventions and the International Criminal Court that are needed to enforce international law. One cannot call Putin a “war criminal” and a “monster” one day, and then announce sanctions against Putin’s daughters the next.
The savages that have created a “hell on earth” in Bucha will forever be remembered. We will also remember President Volodymyr Zelensky asked the UN Security Council last week “Are you ready to close the UN? If the answer is no, then you need to act immediately.” The people of Ukraine are waiting for an answer.