WASHINGTON, April 14 ― The US State Department yesterday defended President Joe Biden's charge that Russia is carrying out a genocide in Ukraine, saying its forces are trying to destroy the country and its civilian population.

Biden levelled the accusation at President Vladimir Putin's forces for the first time on Tuesday, while adding however that it would be up to lawyers to decide if Russia's behaviour actually qualifies as genocide.

“I am going to predict that what President Biden called it is what we will ultimately likely find when we are able to gather all of this evidence,” the State Department's number three official, Victoria Nuland, said on CNN.

“Because what is happening on the ground is not an accident,” she said. “It is an intentional decision by Russia, by its forces to destroy Ukraine and its civilian population,” she added.

The UN convention on preventing genocide, dating from 1948, defines it as a crime “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Jurists are careful about using the word, and Western leaders are divided about accusing Russia of genocide. The Kremlin called Biden's use of it “unacceptable.”

US diplomats have been seeking to play down the impact of the president's comments, saying he is mainly adopting a “moral” position rather than a strictly legal one.

“The president was speaking to the impression that he had garnered from watching the horrific footage that we've all seen from places like Mariupol, from places like Bucha, from Kharkiv and from other places,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said, citing Ukrainian cities where the West accuses Russia of atrocities against civilians.

“It is much less important what you call it, rather than how you respond to it, and we're responding to it, resolutely, by providing our Ukrainian partners with precisely what they need to defend themselves against this Russian aggression,” Price said.

“Whether this is a war crime, whether this is an atrocity, whether this is genocide, it does not change our strategy,” said Price. ― AFP