Analysis: Calling Putin a war criminal is more important than you think

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On Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed no concern that Biden’s remarks could disrupt talks with Russia. He told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria he was “ready for negotiations” with Putin. (More on that in a minute.)

Biden’s comments represented a major moment as top officials had mostly avoided saying war crimes were being committed in Ukraine, citing ongoing investigations into whether that term might be used. But shortly after the president uttered the words “I think he’s a war criminal” to reporters at an unrelated event, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the comment came “from the heart”. Other officials have used similar language.

“When you speak from the heart, as a human being and you see what we have all seen, these burning images on television, a Russian strike against a maternity hospital in Mariupol, strikes against residential buildings, against schools , versus civilian quarters, it’s hard not to draw that conclusion,” State Department spokesman Ned Price later told CNN.

And after Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he “personally” agrees with Biden’s label on Putin, Psaki told reporters the top US diplomat was speaking “from the heart as well.”

Why all the analysis? Although terms such as “war crimes” and “war criminal” are often used colloquially, they have a legal definition that could be used in potential prosecutions. This includes the Geneva Conventions, which define the intentional targeting of civilians as a war crime.

In other words, the White House is careful not to preempt international investigations into the Russian invasion.

Will Biden’s remarks complicate the Ukraine-Russia negotiations? The Kremlin called Biden’s remarks that Putin was a war criminal “absolutely unacceptable and inexcusable.”

When asked if it would be difficult to sit down with Putin, Zelensky said on Sunday that he was ready – and he was ready.

“I’m ready to negotiate with him. I’ve been ready for two years. And I think without negotiations we can’t end this war,” he said on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.”

“I think we have to use any format, any chance, in order to have a possibility to negotiate, a possibility to talk to Putin. But if these attempts fail, it would mean that it is a third war world.”

Zelensky has called for more negotiations in recent days as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nears its fourth week. In a video message released on Saturday, he called for talks “without delay”, warning that otherwise Russia’s losses would be “enormous”.
The problem, as CNN’s National Security Team reports, is that US and NATO officials believe Putin hasn’t backed down from his initial demands in talks with Ukraine, and there’s a strong dose of skepticism in Western capitals about the credibility of Moscow’s commitment. even if the state of these negotiations remains difficult to decipher, according to multiple sources informed of the situation.

Ukrainian and Russian negotiators have met four times since the start of the Russian invasion.

The State Department’s perspective. On Friday, US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman also expressed her personal view of war crimes being committed in Russia, saying they “all feel it personally”, but noted that he must be “a body of evidence” before a court decision can be made. be done.

“I think there’s hardly anyone – maybe Vladimir Putin is the exception – who can look at all the photographs, all the videos coming out of Ukraine and not believe that Putin is intentionally targeting civilians, and intentionally targeting civilians is a war crime,” she said in an interview with CNN’s John Berman on “New Day.”

“Now I think we all feel that personally,” Sherman said, “but in terms of international law you have to have evidence, you have to have a body of evidence that in fact there was intentionality.” She added that the United States is “helping to gather this evidence, present it to the parties of international justice and then have a legal threshold that is reached.”

How long do war crimes investigations take? Investigations at the International Criminal Court last many years and only a few convictions have been won.

In other words, it could be a while before Biden’s “war criminal” remarks carry legal weight — if ever.

As we noted earlier this month, the tribunal judges people, not countries, and focuses on those who hold the most responsibility: leaders and officials. Although Ukraine is not a member of the Court, it has previously accepted its jurisdiction. Putin could therefore theoretically be indicted by the court for having previously ordered war crimes in Crimea.

However, the ICC does not conduct trials in absentia, so he would either have to be handed over by Russia or arrested outside of Russia. It seems unlikely.

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