U.S. President Joe Biden ramped up his rhetoric against Russia on Tuesday, accusing President Vladimir Putin of engineering a “genocide” in Ukraine.
“Your family budget, your ability to fill up your tank, none of it should hinge on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide half a world away,” Biden said during a visit to the U.S. state of Iowa to promote a program to help lower gasoline prices.
The U.S. president later defended his decision to label Russia’s actions as a genocide while talking to reporters before boarding Air Force One.
“I called it genocide because it has become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of being able to be Ukrainian, and the evidence is mounting,” Biden said.
“We’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies, but it sure seems that way to me,” he added.
Biden has repeatedly criticized Putin, publicly calling him a “war criminal” and demanding that Putin stand trial after evidence of atrocities was discovered in Bucha, a suburb of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
“This guy is brutal, and what’s happening in Bucha is outrageous, and everyone’s seen it,” Biden said of Putin at the time. “This warrants — he is a war criminal.”
For weeks, Western and Ukrainian officials have complained of mounting evidence of what they say are systematic atrocities and war crimes being committed by Russian forces retreating from parts of northern Ukraine.
But if there was any hope Russia might bring its nearly month-and-a-half-long invasion of Ukraine to an end anytime soon, Putin brushed them aside Tuesday while speaking to workers at the Vostochny space launch facility in Russia’s Far East.
During the visit Tuesday, the Russian leader said the fight would go on until the military achieved what he described as his country’s “noble” goals.
Putin also vowed Russia’s military would proceed “rhythmically and calmly,” blaming Ukraine for derailing peace talks.
“We have again returned to a dead-end situation for us,” Putin said of the negotiations, adding that Russia has no choice but to proceed.
“I often hear questions about, is it possible to be quicker?” Putin told workers at the base, according to a Russian Ministry of Defense Telegram feed.
“It is possible,” he added. “It depends on the intensity of the hostilities.”
Chemical weapons allegations
Putin’s comments on the war, his first in almost a week, follow allegations of new war crimes, including charges that Russian forces attempting to capture the besieged southern port city of Mariupol unleashed a chemical weapons attack.
Russian officials have consistently denied the accusations, instead accusing the United States and Ukraine of preparing to unleash chemical and biological weapons.
U.S. officials Tuesday said they are taking the latest allegations against Russia seriously but cautioned that confirming a chemical weapons attack could take time.
“We cannot confirm the use of chemical agents at this time,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence. “We’re still evaluating.”
“These are difficult things to prove, even when you are more proximate, and we are not,” the official added. “We want to be very careful here before making a proclamation.”
Further complicating the situation, U.S. officials warned that several intelligence streams suggested Russia might try to mask a chemical weapons attack by mixing banned chemical agents with other substances.
“We had credible information that Russian forces may use a variety of riot control agents, including tear gas, mixed with chemical agents,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday.
The mixture “would cause stronger symptoms to weaken and incapacitate entrenched Ukrainian fighters and civilians as part of the aggressive campaign to take Mariupol,” he said.
Battle for Mariupol
Russian and Ukrainian troops are engaged in a pitched battle for control of the city.
Ukrainian officials estimate as many as 22,000 people have died in Mariupol as a result of Russian airstrikes and shelling that have flattened much of the city.
Despite social media posts from some Ukrainian and Ukrainian-backed forces that the country is running out of weapons, U.S. officials said Tuesday that Russia has not yet managed to take control.
“Mariupol is still contested, and the Ukrainians are still fighting to defend (it),” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Tuesday. “They haven’t given up on it, and we aren’t giving up on them, either.”
Western military officials have warned that Russian forces have increasingly targeted Mariupol with air and missile strikes as part of their concentrated effort to expand control in eastern Ukraine.
“It is obvious that the Russians want Mariupol because of its strategic location,” Kirby said. “It would provide them an unfettered and unhindered land access between the Donbas and Crimea.”
U.S. and British military have warned they expect fighting in the Donbas to intensify in the coming days and weeks as Russian forces pulled from around the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and other northern areas resupply in Belarus and Russia and head east.
Those efforts include a kilometers-long Russian resupply convoy, about 60 kilometers north of the town of Izyum, slowly making its way south toward the cities of Donetsk and Mariupol.
The convoy, according to a senior U.S. defense official, includes command and control elements, artillery, helicopters and armored vehicles.
Despite the onslaught, Ukrainian forces appear to have inflicted serious losses on the Russian military. U.S. estimates indicate Russia has lost about 20% of the combat power it arrayed against Ukraine since the invasion began February 24.
Western aid to Ukraine
And more Western aid for Ukraine is on the way.
Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday “affirmed their commitment to continue providing security and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine in the face of ongoing atrocities by Russia,” the White House said in a statement.
The Pentagon said two U.S. shipments of ammunition, machine guns, body armor and explosives arrived in the region on Monday, with a similar shipment set to arrive in the next 24 hours.
The senior U.S. defense official said Ukrainian forces have also received “a significant amount” of the 100 so-called switchblade drones, equipped with tank-busting warheads, promised as part of a recent $300 million security assistance package.
The remaining drones are expected to arrive in Ukraine in the next week or so, as are additional Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly asked the West for more security assistance.
“Unfortunately, we are not getting as much as we need to end this war faster … in particular, to lift the blockade of Mariupol,” he said Tuesday.
Reuters reported late Tuesday that the U.S. is expected to announce another security package for Ukraine, worth up to $750 million as early as Wednesday.
A senior congressional aide told Reuters that while the final package is still under discussion, it is likely to include heavy ground artillery systems, including howitzers.
Late last week, Slovakia sent Ukraine an S-300 air defense system. And U.S. officials say they continue to talk with allies about supplying Ukraine with additional air defense systems.
Ukraine has also asked allies to supply it with Russian-made MiG-29 fighters.
U.S. military officials have repeatedly praised what they have described as the Ukrainian military’s creative and nimble use of the air defense systems it does have in preventing Russia from establishing air superiority, even after almost seven weeks of fighting.
Separately Tuesday, Zelenskyy announced that Ukrainian forces had recaptured Russian-backed opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk.
Medvedchuk has been under house arrest on charges of treason, but according to Ukrainian officials, he escaped shortly after the start of the Russian invasion.
“Pro-Russian traitors and agents of the Russian secret services, remember — your crimes have no statute of limitations,” Ukraine’s security service warned on Twitter, posting a picture of Medvedchuk in handcuffs. “Shackles are waiting for you.”
VOA’s Cindy Saine, Nike Ching and Steve Herman contributed to this report. Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.