Multiple lawmakers referred to Russia's war in Ukraine as a "genocide" during congressional testimony, marking a ratcheting up in the rhetoric from U.S. leaders.
Many of the lawmakers who sit on the U.S. Committee for the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors compliance with the Helsinki Accords, used the language during a Wednesday hearing about alleged war crimes in Ukraine that featured a litany of experts, including the Ukrainian prosecutor general.
“It is horrifying to see what they have done and continue to do. It is reprehensible, it is repugnant, and it is reptilian, what Russia has done to Ukraine. In my opinion, it is what a genocide is — they want to destroy the Ukrainian people,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), the co-chairman, said during his opening remarks. “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a sick human being, and he has no scintilla of a connection to humanity, morality, or care.”
During the hearing, Iryna Venediktova, the prosecutor general for Ukraine, said her office has opened roughly 9,600 cases into alleged war crimes committed by Russian forces against Ukrainians since the Feb. 24 invasion and that the total will continue to rise.
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Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), the commissioner, reiterated Cohen’s point in his own remarks, saying the Kremlin’s plans are “literally an effort to assault and eradicate a people. ... That’s why Russian soldiers have tied hands behind backs and shot people in the head. It’s crimes against those individuals because they are Ukrainians. And it fits, in my view, the definition of war crimes, perhaps even genocide."
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), the ranking member of the commission, specifically called out Putin's role in what they believe is the genocide of the Ukrainian people.
"We've seen attacks on hospitals, schools, and humanitarian corridors, which could not possibly have been military objectives," he explained. "This must stop, and those responsible must be held accountable. Vladimir Putin is a serial war criminal. He should be investigated by war crimes authorities internationally and [be] brought to justice and made to pay not only for his genocide and atrocities in Ukraine, but also for Aleppo, [Syria]."
Despite the desire to hold the Russian leader responsible, Beth Van Schaack, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice who also testified at the hearing, told lawmakers that it'll be "difficult" to hold top Russian officials responsible for crimes committed in the war.
"If they don't leave Russia, they enjoy impunity for the end of their days. And so, you know, that's the reality of the situation. There is no international police force who can go and cross sovereign territory and arrest them," she explained. "However, you know, those of us in this business are playing a long game, and there will be jurisdiction over these individuals virtually anywhere they would go because so many states have incorporated within their domestic penal codes the ability to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity, regardless of the nationality of the perpetrator or the place of commission."
President Joe Biden invoked the word "genocide" as he spoke about Ukraine during an event in Iowa in mid-April, though the White House later downplayed the comment.
Biden said at the time that it is becoming "clearer and clearer that Putin is trying to wipe out the idea of being Ukrainian," and he had earlier told a crowd gathered at a biofuel processing plant in Menlo that "your family budget, your ability to fill up your tank, none of it should hinge on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide a half a world away."
The Biden administration has not formally accused the Kremlin of genocide.
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Members of Congress accusing Russia of committing genocide represents a sharpening of U.S. rhetoric about Russia's war. The administration had been hesitant to accuse Russia of war crimes, but that changed on March 23, when the State Department concluded that "based on information currently available, the U.S. government assesses that members of Russia's forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine.”