Russia summons US ambassador over Biden’s ‘war criminal’ comment

Russia says it has summoned the United States’s ambassador to the country over President Joe Biden’s recent comments labelling his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” amid the invasion of Ukraine.

In a statement on Monday, the Russian foreign ministry said it summoned US Ambassador John Sullivan as ties between Moscow and Washington were on the verge of collapse.

Biden last week told reporters that Putin was a “war criminal” for launching an all-out invasion of Ukraine late last month, as Russia’s bombardment has levelled entire neighbourhoods and forced more than 10 million people to flee their homes.

“Such statements from the American president, unworthy of a statesman of such high rank, put Russian-American relations on the verge of rupture,” the foreign ministry said in the statement.

It also said Sullivan had been handed a formal letter of protest about “recent unacceptable statements” made by Biden, and was warned that “hostile actions taken against Russia would receive a firm and decisive response”.

The US Department of State later on Monday confirmed that a meeting had taken place between Sullivan and the Russian government, during which Sullivan demanded that Moscow follow international law and called for consular access to US citizens detained in Russia.

Department of State spokesman Ned Price told reporters it is “completely unacceptable” that the US has been denied consular access to detained citizens.

Tensions between the US and Russia have been rising amid Russian forces’ continuing attacks on Ukrainian cities and towns, which have drawn global condemnation and complicated efforts to bring about a negotiated end to the conflict.

The Biden administration and its allies in Europe have issued a wide range of sanctions against Russian officials, businesses and wealthy elite in an effort to pressure Putin to end the invasion.

The Kremlin immediately rejected Biden’s assertion that Putin was a “war criminal”, calling it “unacceptable and unforgivable rhetoric”.

But the US’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, doubled down on the president’s remarks, saying last week that he too believed that Russian forces had committed war crimes in Ukraine.

Blinken said on Thursday that Department of State experts were in the process of documenting and evaluating potential war crimes in Ukraine to help international efforts towards accountability, but added that it was apparent that Russia is committing abuses.

“Intentionally targeting civilians is a war crime. After all the destruction of the past three weeks, I find it difficult to conclude that the Russians are doing otherwise,” he told reporters.

On Monday, Biden held a call with President Emmanuel Macron of France, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom to discuss their coordinated responses to the Russian invasion.

In a readout after the talks, the White House said the leaders “discussed their serious concerns about Russia’s brutal tactics in Ukraine, including its attacks on civilians”.

“They underscored their continued support for Ukraine, including by providing security assistance to the brave Ukrainians who are defending their country from Russian aggression, and humanitarian assistance to the millions of Ukrainians who have fled the violence. The leaders also reviewed recent diplomatic efforts in support of Ukraine’s effort to reach a ceasefire,” it said.

Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett, reporting from Washington earlier in the day, said strained ties between Moscow and Washington could complicate both continuing negotiations to reach a ceasefire in Ukraine, as well as talks to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.

“The fact that the US ambassador has been summoned in Russia, and the fact that ties are not only strained, but have the potential to be severed completely, could put a number of US policy objectives at risk,” Halkett said.

Biden will travel to Poland on Friday to meet with President Andrzej Duda to discuss the international response to Russia’s invasion. He also will meet in Brussels earlier this week with the US’s NATO allies, as well as leaders of the G7 and European Union.

Earlier on Monday, the EU’s foreign policy chief called Russia’s attacks on the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol “a massive war crime”.

Russian forces have encircled and bombarded Mariupol for more than two weeks, and hundreds of thousands of residents remain trapped with little if any access to food, water and electricity.

“What’s happening now in Mariupol is a massive war crime, destroying everything, bombarding and killing everybody,” Josep Borrell said at the start of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

That was echoed by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. “The courts will have to decide, but for me, these are clearly and unequivocally war crimes,” she said.

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