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Jackie Calmes commentary: Biden isn’t misspeaking about Putin. He’s speaking for the American people

Summary: The experts and diplomats tell us that, for all the evidence of war crimes, identifying and prosecuting the Russians responsible will be difficult. They say Putin most likely will never sit in the dock as Hitler’s henchmen did, even if he’s charged. ... But we know what we’re seeing, and naming and shaming is not nothing. Let Biden be Biden.

U.S. President Joe Biden in Menlo, Iowa, on April 12, 2022.
U.S. President Joe Biden in Menlo, Iowa, on April 12, 2022.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images/TNS
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You can watch for yourself.

A cyclist dismounts from a bike, walks it along one road in Bucha, Ukraine, and turns onto a street where a Russian tank is parked mid-block. The tank fires.

You see the result in another video made weeks later, after Ukrainian forces re-entered the town: Man and bike, both mangled, lying in the same spot you last saw him.

Tank versus man. If the cyclist had been a soldier at war, this would be horrifying enough. But he plainly wasn’t. Inside that tank was another man. Playing sniper with its big guns. Against civilians.

This is just one bit of evidence of Russia’s war crimes in the mountain of proof that has piled up in just seven weeks of horror. At the behest of their commander in chief, Vladimir Putin, Russian soldiers are warring without provocation against a civilian population in ways we haven’t witnessed in our lifetimes.

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And that’s the unprecedented point: We are witnesses.

We are the first generation to see the atrocities of war or their aftermath, or both, through verified evidence like the aerial camera footage that memorialized the cyclist’s murder and through civilians’ cellphone videos. There are also the photos and videos from international journalists and broadcast networks and from human-rights organizations and forensic investigators already on the ground to document Russia’s crimes — Putin’s crimes. There will be more. Putin has doubled down, putting a new commander, the reputed Butcher of Syria, in charge.

Basement torture chambers. Beheadings and dismemberments. Executions of bound civilians. Sniper deaths of unarmed pedestrians. Corpses incinerated, desecrated, even booby-trapped. The Washington Post described 21-year-old Dmytro Chaplyhin, beaten “black and blue” and shot in the chest, his body tied to the tripwire of a mine.

Mass deportations of Ukrainians to “filtration camps” in Russia. Rapes of girls and women. Of 25 women held captive and raped in a Bucha basement, nine became pregnant, according to a Ukrainian human rights official. Bombings that killed dozens of fleeing civilians at a rail station, hundreds at a theater-turned-shelter for women and children, and others at a maternity and children’s hospital, one of scores of medical centers the Russians have hit.

Excuse me if I don’t join the tut-tutting about President Biden, after he once again departed from diplo-speak, this time to accuse Russia of genocide.

The president’s truth-telling on Tuesday followed undiplomatic remarks last month condemning Putin as “a war criminal,” before the Biden administration had officially applied that label, and ad-libbing about the Russian leader in a speech in Warsaw: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

French President Emmanuel Macron led the critics, telling French television that Biden’s remarks were unhelpful to peace-making. As if Putin shows any sign of wanting peace.

It was Macron, not Biden, who stepped in it: “‘Genocide’ has a meaning,” the French leader said, that might not apply between Russians and Ukrainians because “these two peoples are brothers.” The diplomatically self-righteous Macron essentially parroted Putin’s propaganda — echoed with genocidal overtones from the Kremlin and state-controlled media — that has long denied the national identity of Ukrainians to justify Russia’s subjugation of them.

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Yes, words matter, especially the words of a U.S. president. And words like “genocide” and “war crimes” have distinct meanings, defined by international law dating to the Nuremberg trials of German Nazis. The United Nations’ 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide describes genocide as “a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part.”

That’s clearly what Biden had in mind when he said in Iowa on Tuesday that Putin “is just trying to wipe out even the idea of being Ukrainian.”

Typically, however, the rare U.S. determination of genocide follows the government’s exhaustive documentation and legal review. “We’ll let the lawyers decide” whether Russia’s brutality qualifies, Biden acknowledged, “but it sure seems that way to me.”

His short-circuiting of that process puts pressure on his administration to make the case officially, and could even lead to more direct U.S. military involvement in Ukraine, which he has resisted. Those risks are worth taking.

This is a 79-year-old president who, while famously prone to gaffes or emotional candor, marinated in decades of diplomacy as a senator, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and vice president. Yet as president, he finds himself as the leader of the free world during the first war to be livestreamed as well as photographed and filmed by countless victims, with all its barbarity in gory color. In response, cautiously chosen words from the American president would come across as just more diplo-babble.

“I understand the diplomats wanting to be careful, and the president has to be careful as well,” former Sen. Christopher J. Dodd told me. Yet Dodd, whose father Thomas was a prosecutor at Nuremberg before becoming a Connecticut senator, and who has focused on human rights law himself, said Biden understandably “expresses his emotions” given what he’s seen, and in so doing “has given voice to what most Americans think is going on.”

The experts and diplomats tell us that, for all the evidence of war crimes, identifying and prosecuting the Russians responsible will be difficult. They say Putin most likely will never sit in the dock as Hitler’s henchmen did, even if he’s charged.

But we know what we’re seeing, and naming and shaming is not nothing. Let Biden be Biden.

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Jackie Calmes is an opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times in Washington, D.C.

©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com . Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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