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U.S. officially declares that Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. government has assessed that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine, attacking civilian points such as this school destroyed in Kharkiv.
Sergey Bobok
AFP via Getty Images
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. government has assessed that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine, attacking civilian points such as this school destroyed in Kharkiv.

Updated March 23, 2022 at 4:23 PM ET

The U.S. government is officially declaring that Russian military forces, led by President Vladimir Putin, have committed war crimes in Ukraine by hitting civilian targets, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.

The attacks on Ukraine have been ongoing for nearly a month and have resulted in nearly 5,000 civilian causalities, the statement said. Russian troops have targeted areas where civilians are present, including apartment buildings, schools and hospitals.

"Last week, I echoed President Biden's statement, based on the countless accounts and images of destruction and suffering we have all seen, that war crimes had been committed by Putin's forces in Ukraine," Blinken said in a statement.

"Today, I can announce that, based on information currently available, the U.S. government assesses that members of Russia's forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine," Blinken added.

A week ago, President Biden was asked by reporters whether he was ready to call Russian President Putin a war criminal.

"I think he is a war criminal," Biden said.

Blinken's statement comes after Russian attacks on Mariupol

On Wednesday, Blinken specifically mentioned Russia's recent attacks on a maternity hospital and a theater in Mariupol that was specifically marked with the Russian word for children, written in huge letters visible from the sky.

"Putin's forces used these same tactics in Grozny, Chechnya, and Aleppo, Syria, where they intensified their bombardment of cities to break the will of the people," Blinken said.

Shorty after Blinken's statement was released, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, echoed a similar sentiment during an emergency special session on Ukraine.

"We need only to look at the plight of people in Mariupol to understand the brutality President Putin has inflicted. Mariupol, once home to nearly a half million people, has been without food, water, electricity, or gas for weeks," Thomas-Greenfield said.

She added that "Russia's actions in Mariupol will be investigated thoroughly, and importantly, known by the world as a symbol of Russian brutality, alongside those in Aleppo and Grozny."

The International Criminal Court will open an investigation

Blinken also added that a court of law with proper jurisdiction is the only way to determine guilt. But the U.S. government will continue to track reports of war crimes and is "committed to pursuing accountability," he said.

Last month, the International Criminal Court said it would open an an investigation into war crime claims in Ukraine "as rapidly as possible."

The investigation will build on previous research from the ICC when it was looking into the possibility of war crimes in Ukraine since late 2013.

"Given the expansion of the conflict in recent days, it is my intention that this investigation will also encompass any new alleged crimes falling within the jurisdiction of my Office that are committed by any party to the conflict on any part of the territory of Ukraine," ICC chief prosecutor Karim A.A. Khan said in a statement on Feb. 28.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.