Biden calls Russia's Putin a 'war criminal' over invasion of Ukraine

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden was speaking "from the heart."

March 16, 2022, 3:34 PM

President Joe Biden on Wednesday called Russian President Vladimir Putin a "war criminal" for his violent invasion Ukraine, including attacks on civilians.

The president initially told a reporter "no," when asked if he was ready to label Putin a war criminal "after everything we've seen," but moments later Biden circled back, asking her to repeat the question, which he appeared to have initially misunderstood.

"I think he is a war criminal," Biden said of Putin, for the first time since the unprovoked attack began.

A short time later, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at an afternoon press briefing Biden was speaking "from the heart" after he made the comment, while carefully noting there is still a State Department review of whether it considers Russia's attacks on Ukrainian civilians a war crime.

"The president's remarks speak for themselves. He was speaking from his heart and speaking from what you've seen on television, which is barbaric actions by a brutal dictator, through his invasion of a foreign country," Psaki said. "There is a legal process that continues to – is underway, continues to be underway at the State Department."

ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Mary Bruce followed up, noting the ongoing, formal process to use the term, and said, "So something must have changed for the President to feel like he can take this additional step today."

"The president was answering a direct question that was asked, and responding to what he has seen on television, we have all seen," Psaki replied. "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 I think he was answering a direct question," she added, appearing to downplay the comment.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden answers a reporters question as he departs after speaking at an event to celebrate the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in the East Room of the White House, March 16, 2022.
President Joe Biden answers a reporters question as he departs after speaking at an event to celebrate the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in the East Room of the White House, March 16, 2022.
Patrick Semansky/AP

Despite the evidence, the White House had gone out of its way not to label Putin a war criminal, repeatedly noting there was an official review underway before the Biden administration could formally accuse Putin of war crimes.

Earlier this month, Biden said it was "clear" Russian forces were targeting civilian areas but said that it was too early to label the actions war crimes.

"Do you believe Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine?" Biden was asked on March 2.

"We are following it very closely. It's early to say that," he said.

PHOTO: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki holds a press briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, March 16, 2022.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki holds a press briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, March 16, 2022.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

The shift in characterization follows a wave of U.S. sanctions on Russia including personal sanctions on Putin and following a powerful appeal from Ukrainian President Zelenskyy to Congress, in which he called on Biden to do more to aid Ukraine.

Exactly one year before Russian forces started invading Ukriane, Biden told ABC News Anchor George Stephanopoulos in an interview that be believed Putin was a "killer."

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