Joe Biden denounced Vladimir Putin as a war criminal, delivering his harshest rebuke yet to the Russian leader just hours after the Ukrainian president called on Congress to provide more aid to his country.
“I think he is a war criminal,” Biden said of Putin on Wednesday.
The president’s comment marked a distinctive rhetorical shift for the White House, which had deflected previous questions about whether Putin should be considered a war criminal for the Russian military’s attacks on Ukrainian civilians.
“There is a process, and we have put in place an internal process, an internal team, to assess, observe and assess the evidence of what we are seeing happening on the ground,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki. this month.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called Biden’s comments “unacceptable and inexcusable rhetoric,” according to the Russian state news agency Tass.
Biden’s comments came hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivered an impassioned virtual speech to the US Congress. From Ukraine’s defeated capital, Zelenskiy pleaded with lawmakers to do more to protect his nation against Russia’s brutal invasion, in an emotional appeal that invoked painful memories of Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 terror attacks and echoed of Martin Luther King’s call for a more peaceful future.
The comments to members of both houses of Congress came on the 21st day of the battle for Ukraine’s survival that Zelenskiy portrayed as the front line of a global fight to protect democratic values.
Wearing his military green T-shirt, with a Ukrainian flag draped behind him, Zelenskiy was direct: “I ask you to do more.
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“The fate of our country is being decided,” he told Congress. “We need you right now.”
Speaking hours after Zelenskiy’s speech, Joe Biden announced that the US would provide Ukraine with an additional $800 million in security assistance. The aid will include 800 anti-aircraft systems, 9,000 anti-armor systems, 20 million pieces of ammunition and drones to help Ukraine fight Russian aggression.
Applauding Zelenskiy’s “impassioned message” to Congress, Biden said, “He speaks for people who have shown extraordinary courage and strength in the face of brutal aggression, courage and strength that inspire not only Ukrainians but the whole world”.
Appearing by video link on Capitol Hill, Zelenskiy called on the US to send more military aid and impose tough new sanctions on Russian lawmakers. Borrowing King’s famous words from his “I have a dream” speech, Zelenskiy said Ukraine needed help to protect its airspace: “Today, I can say ‘I have a need’: I need to protect our sky,” he said.
Acknowledging that a no-fly zone was not a start for the US, Zelenskiy called on the packed house of lawmakers to consider an “alternative,” including more planes and better weapons, to help Ukraine “close the skies.” Biden did not directly acknowledge Zelenskiy’s request in his own comments, but his administration has so far flatly ruled out the option of the West imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
The White House is determined to avoid direct combat between US and Russian forces, a conflict the US president has said would lead to “World War III.”
Referencing Pearl Harbor and 9/11, the attacks on the US that came from the sky, Zelenskiy asked members of Congress to imagine the Ukraine experience: “Our country experiences this every day, right now. , right now, every night for three weeks. .”
It also played a harrowing video that captured the brutal Russian attack, which has turned once-vibrant city streets into urban war zones. Silence fell over the auditorium as it played, showing images of bombs flattening city buildings and civilians, including children, bloodied and killed in the Russian assault.
Before and after he spoke, lawmakers gave Zelenskiy a standing ovation. He placed his hand over her heart in gratitude. He delivered most of his speech in Ukrainian, but made one last call in English.
“I don’t see the point of life if you can’t stop the deaths,” he said, sounding emotional as he spoke of the 100 children he said had been killed in the bombing.
Lawmakers left the auditorium visibly shaken by the embattled Ukrainian leader’s remarks as he rallies his nation and the world from the front lines of what many believe is Europe’s most dangerous security threat since the end of World War II.
Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, implored the United States to send more military aid.
“They are fighting for the free world,” he said. “We are a superpower. We should act like it.”
Biden has said he speaks with the Ukrainian leader in private almost every day. But on Wednesday, before the US president spoke, Zelenskiy publicly challenged him to do more to stop the bloodshed.
“You are the leader of your great nation. I wish you to be the leader of the world,” he said. “Being the leader of the world means being the leader of peace.”
In announcing the additional security assistance to Ukraine, Biden pledged that the United States would support Zelenskiy and his people in the coming weeks and months.
“I want to be honest with you: This could be a long and difficult battle. But the American people will stand firm in our support for the people of Ukraine in the face of Putin’s immoral and unethical attacks on civilians,” Biden said. “We will continue to support them as they fight for their freedom, their democracy, their very survival.”
More than 3 million people have fled Ukraine since the invasion, sparking Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II.
Zelenskiy’s speech follows his similar speeches to the UK parliament, in which he invoked Shakespeare and echoed Winston Churchill’s famous wartime oration to the House of Commons about defiance in the face of an aggressor. overwhelming.
On Tuesday, Zelenskiy called on Canada’s parliament and the nation’s large Ukrainian diaspora to support his country. That night, the prime ministers of NATO allies and Russia’s neighbors Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia traveled by train to kyiv, which was under a 35-hour curfew due to Russian shells and missiles. it rained on the capitalhitting residential areas and civil infrastructure.
On the same day, Zelenskiy acknowledged that Ukraine’s long hope of joining NATO was unlikely.
“For years we have heard about the seemingly open door, but we have also heard that we will not go in there, and these are truths and must be recognized,” the Ukrainian president said.
A growing chorus of lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been publicly pushing Biden to increase military aid to Ukraine, including sending fighter jets and air defense systems. The calls come as the US and its allies tighten their economic vice on Russia, apparently leading Moscow to turn to China for financial support.
Biden will travel to the Belgian capital Brussels next week to meet with NATO leaders to discuss the crisis in Ukraine and reassure allies about the US commitment to the defense alliance.