LVIV – Joe Biden doesn’t always use words with particular care. Remember the fuss he caused last month by saying of Vladimir Putin, “for God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power!” He was immediately accused of calling for regime change, when in fact he was just giving vent to the same exasperation that people across the Western world have been feeling since the invasion of Ukraine began. But the president of the United States isn’t an ordinary person, or at least he ought to be careful not to talk like one.
He was at it again on Tuesday night (12 April), at a meeting with farmers and others in Iowa. His prepared speech was about inflation, but he soon veered off-message. He told his audience that their ability to balance their books shouldn’t “hinge on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide half a world away”. Cue instant criticism. Asked about it on French television, President Emmanuel Macron, who has managed his time in office so well that the far right in his country could be only a few days away from power, replied snottily that he would be careful with such terms as genocide. “I want to carry on trying to stop the war and rebuild peace,” he said. “I am not sure that an escalation of rhetoric serves that cause.”
Macron’s efforts to rebuild peace reached their high point when President Vladimir Putin forced him to take multiple Covid tests and stuck him down the far end of a Kremlin table the length of a cricket pitch. Trying to avoid giving offence hasn’t done much to progress the cause of peace so far. And for once, President Biden seems to have been rather careful in his Iowa speech, even if his words weren’t scripted. Nowadays, people tend to use the word “genocide” sloppily, as though it simply means killing lots of people. That way, any war is likely to be an act of genocide. But Biden was more specific than that. Putin was, he said, trying to “wipe out the idea” of even being Ukrainian. That is, surely, one of the key elements of any definition of genocide.
[See also: Defining genocide]
The Bosnian Serb campaign against Muslims in Bosnia from 1992 was genocide, because the architects of it were open in their determination to clear out and destroy Muslims as a people. The ethnic killings in Rwanda in 1994 were assuredly genocide, because armed Hutu militias tried to kill off the Tutsi minority. What is happening to the Uyghurs in China can reasonably be classed as genocide because it involves targeting, “re-educating” and often killing people of a particular ethnic and religious group, with the intention of getting rid of the “problem” they pose.
What is happening in Ukraine isn’t like Rwanda or Xinjiang. Civilians are dying in appallingly large numbers there, but not particularly because of their ethnicity. They are dying because the Russian troops are poorly disciplined, careless and have overwhelming firepower. I have watched three Russian campaigns, and they fill me with terror because the soldiers don’t care what they do, and their officers don’t try to restrain them. Most of the time – and this is particularly true of Ukraine, where living standards are, or were, a lot higher than in Russia – Russian troops seem more concerned with looting than with anything else.
But the original purpose of the invasion was to make Ukraine give up its independence and bind it forcibly to the Russian motherland once again. President Putin talked about demilitarising and denazifying Ukraine, but these ideas seem really intended to punish the country for breaking away from the Russian Federation after the Soviet Union collapsed. The purpose was to reunite Ukraine with Russia and eradicate its national identity. The Russian state-run news agency Ria Novosti accidentally published a previously prepared article on day two of the invasion that began, “Ukraine has returned to Russia.”
Having failed to capture Kyiv, or anywhere in the centre of the country, Putin is now concentrating on Mariupol, which seems likely to fall in the next few days. He will hope to present that, plus further gains in Donbas in the east of Ukraine, as major victories to be celebrated on 9 May, the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Probably he’ll be able to con the majority of the Russian people once again.
But even Putin’s closest political aides know that the entire operation has been a serious failure; and at some stage, no matter how carefully Putin protects his position in the meantime, the fiasco in Ukraine will bring him down. And then – though this is only one possibility – the new Russian government may decide that the only way to rebuild its shattered relationship with the West is to hand Putin over to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
This is what happened to Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian (and previously Yugoslav) president. Milošević died in his cell in 2006, apparently of natural causes, after a four-year trial for crimes committed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, respectively the president and military boss of the Bosnian Serbs, are serving life sentences for genocide.
There are an awful lot of unknowns here, and some of the possibilities are a great deal more alarming than this. But when President Biden blurted out that Russia had been committing genocide in Ukraine, it shouldn’t be dismissed as just another of his habitual misstatements. It could just possibly be the pattern of the future.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. His new programme, “Unspun World”, can be seen in the UK on BBC2 on Wednesday evenings at 11.15pm, and on the BBC News Channel and BBC World.