As Vladimir Putin has piled on the atrocities in Ukraine, President Joe Biden has ratcheted up his rhetorical response, shifting from talk about an illegal invasion to the much more damning “war crimes” and “genocide.”

That last word is especially significant because it is not just tough talk. It is a term with legal consequences that commit the president and the country to acting on longstanding treaty obligations that require punishment for the perpetrators of genocide.

By his words and deeds, Putin does seem intent on obliterating Ukraine as an independent state and erasing the separate identity of the Ukrainian people. That certainly fits within the definition of genocide, even if it does not reach the level of complete extermination attempted by Nazi Germany against the Jews.

It will not be easy to haul the Russian dictator before an international tribunal to be judged for his genocidal assault, as was Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic after the vicious Balkans war in the 1990s. And it could be argued that Russia is already being punished by the extraordinary economic sanctions that have been imposed by the United States and its allies.

However, it seems unlikely to stop at that. As Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine escalate, Biden and other NATO leaders will feel the growing moral imperative to do more in response.

When this war began, the president insisted America’s military forces would never enter the fray and directly confront Russia’s invading army. If this is genocide, though, it is easier to imagine Biden might be forced to alter that policy.  

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