Putin’s rhetoric increasingly unhinged amid war crime accusations

As war rages in Ukraine, and Moscow faces increasingly grim economic prospects following a raft of powerful Western sanctions, Washington and Moscow have exchanged mutual accusations this week of humanitarian law violations. The main part that doesn’t match up is the timeline; while the White House believes Putin is a “war criminal” as civilian casualties mount amid his ongoing invasion, the Kremlin is suddenly very concerned with World War II.

US President Joe Biden on Thursday referred to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as a “murderous dictator, a pure thug, who is waging an immoral war against the people of Ukraine.” Earlier Thursday, following a meeting with Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin, Biden said “Putin’s brutality and what he’s doing and his troops are doing in Ukraine is just inhumane.” A day prior, the American leader described the conflict as an “unprovoked war of aggression and just a vicious, vicious, vicious treatment of the Ukrainian people — bombing hospitals and homes and nurseries.”

Also on Wednesday, Biden said Putin was a “war criminal.” Asked to expand on the implications of Biden’s use of that term, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said “We have all seen barbaric acts, horrific acts by a foreign dictator in a country that is threatening and taking the lives of civilians, impacting hospitals, women who are pregnant, journalists, others,” and added that the State Department was leading efforts to gather data and information to aid international investigations. This came against the backdrop of an order by the International Court of Justice demanding Russia to “immediately suspend the military operations that it commenced on 24 February 2022 in the territory of Ukraine.” Earlier in the week, in a rare show of bipartisan consensus, the US Senate had voted unanimously to pass a resolution that condemned Putin as a “war criminal.”

Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the remark was hypocritical coming from Biden, Reuters reported. “Our president is a very wise, prescient, and cultured international figure and head of the Russian Federation, our head of state … Such statements by Mr. Biden are absolutely impermissible, unacceptable, and unforgivable. The main thing is that the head of a state which has for many years bombed people across the world … the president of such a country has no right to make such statements,” he said before referring to the United States’ bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, according to Reuters.

Whataboutisms such as this have become common accessories to Russian foreign policy statements, and Putin himself had made a similar statement in March 2021 when asked about critical comments Biden had recently made about him. “The United States is the only country to have used nuclear weapons, mind you, against a non-nuclear state, Japan, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII. There was absolutely no military need for the bombing. It was nothing but the extermination of civilians. I am bringing this up because I know that the United States and its leaders are determined to maintain certain relations with us, but on matters that are of interest to the United States and on its terms.”

As waves of economic sanctions have wreaked havoc on Russia’s economy, the Kremlin has worked overtime to control the official narrative of what it terms a “special military operation.” Between shuttering the country’s independent media outlets, blocking foreign media outlets, detaining thousands of protestors, and criminalizing — with jail time of up to 15 years — narratives that fail to comply with Kremlin information, Putin and his top officials have scrambled to convince the Russian population that widespread reports and images of civilian casualties are false and that Russia’s role in the conflict is essentially one of humanitarian intervention.

In a statement Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke of “Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine to protect people from the [Kyiv] regime, and to demilitarize and de-Nazify this country.” He then claimed Russia had evacuated 33,000 people from Mariupol. He failed, however, to mention a theater in the same city that had reportedly been sheltering upwards of 1,000 civilians when it was destroyed Wednesday in an attack widely attributed to a Russian airstrike. “Another horrendous war crime in Mariupol. Massive Russian attack on the Drama Theater where hundreds of innocent civilians were hiding.,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote via Twitter.

And on Wednesday, addressing the bleak economic situation the country now faces in light of multiple rounds of sanctions imposed against, Putin again leaned on unsubstantiated allegations humanitarian law violations and lashed out at the international community for supporting Ukraine. “[Kyiv’s] Western patrons are just pushing them to continue the bloodshed. They incessantly supply [Kyiv] with weapons and intelligence, as well as other types of assistance, including military advisers and mercenaries. They are using economic, financial, trade, and other sanctions against Russia as weapons, but these sanctions have backfired in Europe and in the United States where prices of gasoline, energy, and food have shot up, and jobs in the industries associated with the Russian market have been cut. So, do not shift the blame on us and do not accuse our country of everything that goes wrong in your countries.”

Moscow has faced round after round of damaging sanctions from across the international community. Even neutral Switzerland has walked in lockstep with the European Union in imposing sanctions against Russia, citing “violations of international law in Ukraine.” Also this week, Russia was also excluded from the Council of Europe this week, in a decision citing Russia’s “aggression … against Ukraine.”

As the economic and political consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continue to mount, Putin’s rhetoric continues to escalate. On Wednesday said Russians opposed to his war are “traitors and scum,” saying: “The collective West is trying to divide our society using, to its own advantage, combat losses and the socioeconomic consequences of the sanctions, and to provoke civil unrest in Russia and use its fifth column in an attempt to achieve this goal. As I mentioned earlier, their goal is to destroy Russia. But any nation, and even more so the Russian people, will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like an insect in their mouth.”