By Sam Fossum and Kevin Liptak, CNN
President Joe Biden on Wednesday called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal,” a rhetorical leap that came as civilian deaths surged in Ukraine.
It is the harshest condemnation of Putin’s actions by a US official since the war in Ukraine began three weeks ago. Previously, Biden had stopped calling documented atrocities on the ground in Ukraine “war crimes,” citing ongoing international and U.S. investigations.
But on Wednesday, speaking to reporters at an unrelated event, Biden affixed the designation to the Russian leader.
“I think he’s a war criminal,” the president said after remarks at the White House.
The change from the administration’s previous position came after an emotional speech to Congress by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who released a video showing Ukrainians suffering amid Russian onslaught. Zelensky asked U.S. lawmakers and Biden for more help to defend themselves, including a no-fly zone and fighter jets.
Biden responded in his own speech a few hours later, laying out new US military assistance to Ukraine – including anti-aircraft and anti-armour systems, weapons and drones – but refrained from accessing the Zelensky’s demands.
Still, Biden acknowledged the horrors that happened on the ground.
“We saw reports that Russian forces were holding hundreds of doctors and patients hostage in the largest hospital in Mariupol,” Biden said. “These are atrocities. They are an outrage to the world. And the world is united in our support for Ukraine and in our determination to make Putin pay a very heavy price.
It wasn’t until hours later that Biden responded to a question about Putin being a war criminal. Biden initially said “no,” but immediately returned to a group of reporters to clarify what had been asked. When asked again if Putin was a war criminal, he replied in the affirmative.
Officials including Biden had previously avoided saying war crimes were being committed in Ukraine, citing ongoing investigations into whether that term could be used. Other world leaders have not been so circumspect, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who last week said war crimes were being committed. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has also opened a war crimes investigation. And the US Senate on Tuesday unanimously called for an international inquiry into war crimes. US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said last week that Russia’s actions against the Ukrainian people “constitute war crimes”, marking the first time a senior US official has directly blamed Moscow. of war crimes since last month’s attack on Ukraine began.
In Poland last week, Vice President Kamala Harris called for international war crimes investigations and made clear she believed atrocities were taking place. She said the intentional targeting of civilians would constitute war crimes.
After Biden delivered his assessment, the White House said the administration’s war crimes investigation would continue.
“The president’s remarks speak for themselves,” press secretary Jen Psaki said. She said Biden “speaks from the heart.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price echoed Psaki later Wednesday, telling CNN’s Erin Burnett on “OutFront” that “when you speak from the heart, as a human, and see what we have all seen, those burning images on television, a Russian strike against a maternity hospital in Mariupol, strikes against residential buildings, against schools, against civilian neighborhoods, it is difficult not to come away with this conclusion.
“What we do here at the State Department, we collect every piece of information, we evaluate it, we document it, and we share it with our partners. There is a process that is involved in this and there are people working almost around the clock to document, assess, share as we all watch what is happening with some horror.
Insisting that Putin’s actions do not currently constitute war crimes, Price reiterated that “there is a formal process here at the department under international humanitarian law to document war crimes. We are involved in this.
Although the term “war crimes” is often used colloquially – as Biden appeared to do on Wednesday – they have a legal definition that could be used in potential prosecutions. This includes in the Geneva Convention, which specifies that the intentional targeting of civilians is a war crime.
Yet to prosecute a war crime requires strong evidence. And for Russian officials to be held accountable, they would have to travel outside the country.
Yet an official war crimes designation – backed by evidence – would still offer the West a symbolic tool to frame Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
Biden is under increasing pressure to do more to help embattled Ukrainians as the Russian campaign intensifies. On Wednesday, a theater in Mariupol sheltering civilians was bombed, the latest example of Russia’s indiscriminate bombardment.
The pressure was only likely to increase after Zelensky’s dramatic appeal to lawmakers for more help. He compared what is happening in Ukraine to Pearl Harbor and 9/11, and said “we need you now” to offer more support.
Biden watched the address from the library at his private residence, and later called it a “compelling” and “meaningful” speech.
“Putin is inflicting appalling devastation and horror on Ukraine, bombing apartment buildings, maternity wards, hospitals,” he said afterwards. “I mean, it’s awful.”
Next week, Biden plans to travel to Brussels for a special session of NATO leaders, where he hopes to demonstrate Western unity in the face of Russian aggression.
This story has been updated with additional reports.
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia company. All rights reserved.