President Joe Biden has again disrupted efforts to deescalate the crisis in Ukraine by declaring that his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin is guilty of carrying out a “genocide” in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky welcomed the statement but France’s Emmanuel Macron described it as an “escalation of rhetoric” that may undermine his efforts to secure peace in Ukraine, which he maintains is still his chief objective.
Biden’s rhetoric not deescalating the crisis
Genocide is universally regarded as one of the most heinous crimes anyone can be accused of; it is an extremely serious accusation that, for many people, creates a moral obligation to intervene.
Biden’s use of the word was anything but serious. The president described Putin as a genocidal dictator while attempting to blame him for inflation in the United States during a speech in Iowa.
Last month Biden called Putin a war criminal and infamously said “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” The White House quickly walked back that statement, as it could easily have been taken as supporting an invasion of Russia itself.
While it is undeniably a horrific humanitarian crisis, the war in Ukraine does not appear to meet the definition of genocide in any objective assessment. Putin is trying to conquer territory and expand Russia; there is no evidence that a systematic extermination of Ukrainians has been ordered or attempted.
If there was evidence that a genocide was being carried out in Ukraine then a speech intended to deflect blame for a domestic economic issue would be an incredibly disrespectful occasion for announcing it .
Hyperbole is an important part of American politics and Biden is being told that he must be “tough on Russia” by lobbing new accusations at Putin. Unfortunately there is much more at stake here than Biden’s approval ratings.
Genocide accusation carries risks
The “genocide” accusation is dangerous for at least three important reasons. First, the severity of the term is watered down when it is used in situations that, while terrible, do not match the definition of this most serious of crimes.
This “boy who cried wolf” situation can lead to a catastrophe like the Rwandan Genocide being largely ignored because the word simply isn’t that meaningful if it is used too casually.
The fact that the United States chose to not get involved in that atrocity has played a role in creating the next danger, which is the sense of moral obligation now aroused by claims of genocide.
If Biden sincerely believes that another Holocaust is taking place in the Ukraine crisis then how can he continue to justify his refusal to militarily intervene against Russia?
The final concern is, as Macron noted, that the accusation will further strain talks with Russia and make negotiations more difficult.
Putin may have had no intention of agreeing to a negotiated settlement in the first place, but it is important for Macron and other leaders to keep the possibility alive.