Moscow/Washington, 17 March 2022 (dpa/MIA) — As the casualties mounted in Ukraine on Thursday, Washington and Moscow wrangled over whether the term “war crimes” was appropriate, an indication that the US plans to pursue the matter long after the fighting ends.
A day after calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal,” US President Joe Biden told people at a St Patrick’s Day speech that the Russian president was a “murderous dictator.”
The Wednesday comments had already angered Moscow, with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov calling the assertion “unacceptable and unforgivable.”
That didn’t seem to move Biden.
“The republic is standing together against a murderous dictator, [a] pure thug who is waging an immoral war against the people [of] Ukraine,” Biden said in Washington on Thursday. “And Putin is paying a big price for his aggression,” Biden continued shortly afterwards.
“I think we’re in a genuine struggle between autocracies and democracies, and whether or not democracies can be sustained.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined in, noting that: “Intentionally targeting civilians is a war crime. After all the destruction of the past three weeks, I find it difficult to conclude that the Russians are doing otherwise.”
He noted that comments like his and Biden’s were personal ones, but added that State Department experts are assessing whether war crimes have been committed in Ukraine. The United Nations also said on Thursday that a probe is needed, given the spiraling death count.
Russia had earlier on Thursday rejected an order from the International Court of Justice to halt the use of military force in Ukraine, so it is unclear if it would cooperate with a UN probe.
The question of a no-fly zone returned on Thursday too, with advocates of supporting Ukraine arguing that the skies must be shut to Russian forces if Ukraine is to have a chance. Latvia became the latest NATO member to make the demand, adding its voice to that of fellow Baltic countries Estonia and Lithuania.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky demanded the same during a videoconference appearance before the German Bundestag. It is a demand he has made regularly in recent days. But NATO has repeatedly refused, noting that Russia would see the move as an escalation, potentially pitting NATO and Russian forces against one another and risking World War III.
“There’s no easy or simple way to do this,” said US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during an appearance with Slovakian Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad. “There’s no such thing as a no-fly zone lite. A no-fly zone means that you’re in a conflict with Russia.”
With that stark choice in mind, diplomacy continued. Negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow were continuing online, according to Peskov.
“Our delegation is making great efforts and showing far more willingness than our Ukrainian counterparts,” he added, arguing that Russia’s conditions were “extremely clear.”
Separately, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered to host Putin and Zelensky for talks. The US also warned China against aiding Russia in its war effort. Doing so would result in costs, warned Blinken.
But nowhere were the costs mounting so heavily as in Ukraine, despite some rays of hope.
Around 130 people were reportedly rescued on Thursday from a bombed-out theatre in the besieged city of Mariupol. More than 1,000 civilians had been sheltering in the Mariupol theatre struck on Wednesday, according to Mayor Vadim Boichenko.
Kyiv and Moscow have blamed each other for the incident, with the Ukrainian side saying it was a deliberate Russian bombing, and Russia accusing the Ukrainian nationalist Azov regiment for the attack.
Conditions are dire in Mariupol, which is blocked on all sides by Russian forces, preventing food, water or medicines from reaching the local population.
About 80% of the dwellings in the war-torn Ukrainian port city have been destroyed: Of these, about 30% cannot be rebuilt, according to local officials.
Such stories prompted members of the G7 group of industrialized nation to demand that Russia allow aid into Ukraine.
But Zelensky said he still managed to see hope and argued Ukrainians will soon celebrate victory against Russia together, the president said during a visit to war wounded in a Kyiv hospital
“It can’t be any other way when there are such strong families in our country,” he said, according to a presidential office statement, shortly after he met a family suffering from gunshot wounds they received while fleeing for their lives.
The question was how many would live to see that day, with reports of death and atrocities pouring in from across the county, including in Chernihiv, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Merefa, Severodonetsk, Novomayorske and Prechystivka.
Russia began the invasion three weeks ago, arguing that it had to de-Nazify and demilitarize a nation that was terrorizing its ethnic Russian population. Critics have fired back that Russia is trying to make Ukraine an example for any former Soviet republic that seeks to escape its influence.