The U.S. government has formally concluded that Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in a statement on Wednesday.
The finding lends official weight to expressions of revulsion about Russia’s military conduct from top U.S. officials, including President Biden, who last week declared Russian President Vladimir V. Putin “a war criminal.”
But the statement did not mention Mr. Putin himself, saying only that “members of Russia’s forces” had committed such crimes. During a briefing for reporters on Wednesday, State Department officials declined to say whether their findings might implicate Mr. Putin.
Proving Mr. Putin’s responsibility for war crimes in a forum like the International Criminal Court, which is investigating the charges, could be difficult. It would likely require demonstrating Mr. Putin’s intent, something that could require proof of his communications with military commanders.
“I think that’s a question that’s left to a court of law that has appropriate jurisdiction over individuals involved in the conflict,” the U.S. ambassador at large for global criminal justice, Beth Van Schaack, told reporters. She declined to offer details of how the U.S. reached its conclusion, saying that much of it was drawn from intelligence sources.
Russia has denied its military has purposely targeted civilians, but witness accounts, news reports and photos, videos and satellite imagery demonstrate that Russian forces, stymied by Ukraine’s defenders, have increasingly been aiming bombs, rockets and missiles at towns and cities, destroying apartment buildings, schools, factories and hospitals, increasing civilian carnage and suffering, and leading more than three million people to flee the country.
Mr. Blinken’s statement said the U.S. assessment was “based on a careful review of available information from public and intelligence sources.”
“As with any alleged crime, a court of law with jurisdiction over the crime is ultimately responsible for determining criminal guilt in specific cases,,” it said.
The statement cited “atrocities,” including a March 9 attack on the Mariupol maternity hospital and a strike that destroyed a theater in the same city where hundreds of civilians were sheltering. The theater had the word “children” written in large letters on the ground outside it.
The statement also mentioned the destruction of “apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, critical infrastructure, civilian vehicles, shopping centers, and ambulances.”
Last week, a day after Mr. Biden said he believed Mr. Putin was a war criminal, Mr. Blinken partially echoed his assessment, saying that the president had said “that, in his opinion, war crimes have been committed in Ukraine.”
“Personally, I agree,” Mr. Blinken added, without mentioning Mr. Putin.
There is also a political dynamic at work, one former U.S. official said. Some Biden officials are concerned that labeling Mr. Putin a war criminal could complicate diplomatic efforts to end the war in Ukraine.
Russia’s foreign ministry said on Monday that it had summoned the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, John Sullivan, to protest Mr. Biden’s “unacceptable” comment and said it threatened a complete rupture in relations between Washington and Moscow.