The Biden administration Wednesday officially declared that Russia’s invading forces in Ukraine are guilty of war crimes, escalating the standoff with the Kremlin and potentially making a diplomatic deal to end the monthlong war even harder to strike.
The statement by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken stopped short of naming Russian President Vladimir Putin or any of his top aides as a war criminal, as President Biden did in a remark to a reporter last week. But Mr. Blinken sharply criticized Mr. Putin for an “unprovoked and unjust war of choice,” one that the U.S. diplomat said had “unleashed unrelenting violence that has caused death and destruction across Ukraine.”
The State Department statement said Russian forces in Ukraine have targeted civilian sites such as apartment buildings, schools and hospitals, many of which had been clearly labeled as non-military locations. It also cited U.N. figures estimating that at least 2,500 civilians have been killed or wounded in the fighting so far, and the actual number is “likely higher.”
Mr. Putin’s troops “used these same tactics in Grozny, Chechnya and Aleppo, Syria, where they intensified their bombardment of cities to break the will of the people,” Mr. Blinken said. “Their attempt to do so in Ukraine has again shocked the world and, as [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy has soberly attested, ‘bathed the people of Ukraine in blood and tears.’”
Mr. Blinken said last week U.S. officials were already compiling evidence on the ground and working with private rights groups to document possible war crimes by Russian forces in the fighting.
“Today, I can announce that, based on information currently available, the U.S. government assesses that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine,” Mr. Blinken said, saying the finding was based on a review of both public and intelligence sources.
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Anxious to contain the scope of the fighting, U.S. officials say they are not seeking “regime change” in the Kremlin even as they join the effort to arm Ukraine and help it defend itself. Mr. Blinken in his statement said any determination of individual guilt for war crimes was not for Washington to decide.
“As with any alleged crime, a court of law with jurisdiction over the crime is ultimately responsible for determining criminal guilt in specific cases,” he said. “The U.S. government will continue to track reports of war crimes and will share information we gather with allies, partners, and international institutions and organizations, as appropriate.”
The Kremlin has yet to respond to the U.S. declaration as of Wednesday afternoon. European Union foreign ministers, meeting Monday in Brussels, also declared Russian forces guilty of war crimes but stopped short of assigning individual guilt.