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Biden calls Putin a "war criminal" in sharpest condemnation since Ukraine invasion

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Posted at 2:10 PM, Mar 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-16 16:10:35-04

President Biden on Wednesday called Russian President Vladimir Putin a "war criminal," marking the first time the president has used the term to characterize his Russian counterpart since Moscow launched the invasion of Ukraine nearly three weeks ago.

Mr. Biden made the comment to a group of reporters at the White House after an event on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Asked whether Putin is a "war criminal," the president initially said no and walked away, but then returned to the members of the press and, when the question was repeated, said he thinks the Russian leader is a war criminal.

"Oh, I think he is a war criminal," the president responded without elaborating.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki pointed to the bombing of a maternity hospital among other Russian aggressions in Ukraine.

"We have all seen barbaric acts, horrific acts, by a foreign dictator in a country that is threatening and taking the lives of civilians, impacting hospitals, women who are pregnant, journalists, others," she said. "I think he was answering a direct question."

Psaki said a legal review is underway at the State Department to review Russia's actions in Ukraine and whether they constitute war crimes.

Mr. Biden's comment came as Russia has continued its bombardment of civilians in Ukraine, with the loss of lives and suffering growing. On Tuesday, the Senate unanimously approved a resolution condemning the violence in Ukraine and calling for an investigation of Putin and members of his regime for war crimes.

The International Court of Justice has ordered Russia to cease its invasion and opened an investigation into the war. The United Nations human rights office registered roughly 600 civilian deaths, though the toll is expected to be much higher. More than 2,000 people are believed to have been killed in the port city of Mariupol alone, according to Ukrainian officials. The U.N. estimates 3 million people have fled Ukraine because of Russia's war, while another nearly 2 million have been internally displaced. The U.N. said the refugee crisis in Ukraine is the fast-growing in Europe since World War II.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine said Russian forces shot and killed 10 people who were standing in line for bread in Chernihiv, a city in northeast Ukraine that was hit in a Russian artillery strike.

"Such horrific attacks must stop. We are considering all available options to ensure accountability for any atrocity crimes in Ukraine," the embassy said in a tweet.

Local officials in Ukraine and Dmytro Kuleba, the country's minister off foreign affairs, on Wednesday said Russian troops struck a theater in Mariupol where "hundreds" of civilians were sheltering.

"Russians could not have not known this was a civilian shelter," Kuleba tweeted, along with a photo purporting to show the besieged theater.

Mr. Biden announced $800 million in new security assistance to Ukraine Wednesday morning, including armed drones. But the new security assistance does not include fighter jets or impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy requested in a virtual address to Congress Wednesday morning.

"Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people," Zelenskyy said in his speech, during which he played for lawmakers a graphic video showing the extent of the death and destruction in Ukraine by Russia.

Mr. Biden, who watched the speech from the White House residence, called Zelenskyy's speech "passionate."