WASHINGTON—Acrimony between Washington and Moscow heated up even further on Friday as Secretary of State John F. Kerry called for Russia to be investigated for war crimes because of its bombardment of civilians in Syria and the Obama administration publicly accused Vladimir Putin’s government of computer hacking that was “intended to interfere with the US election.”
Together, the statements marked another sign that US-Russia relations are spiraling downward toward an enmity not seen since the Cold War. Kerry, using some of his toughest language to date, cited another bombing overnight of a Syrian hospital that he said had killed 20 people and wounded more than 100. He blamed the Russian-backed government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; the two allies have been pounding rebel-controlled sections of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, for days, scuttling Kerry’s efforts to impose a cease-fire.
“These are acts that beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes. And those who commit these would and should be held accountable for these actions,” Kerry said ahead of a meeting with his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault.
“They’re beyond the accidental now—way beyond. Years beyond the accidental,” Kerry added.
Russia and Syria are using “a targeted strategy to terrorize civilians and to kill anybody and everybody who is in the way of their military objectives,” he said.
Kerry’s comments—and an angry retort from Moscow—are the latest in a ratcheting up of hostile threats and counter threats between the two powers. At last month’s United Nation General Assembly, US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power publicly accused Russia of “barbarism.”
Earlier this week, the US suspended bilateral cooperation with Russia over Syria because of what Kerry said was Moscow’s refusal to heed a cease-fire and instead relentlessly attack civilians.
Putin, at the same time, withdrew from a key nuclear pact it had signed with Washington more than a decade ago. Putin has repeatedly flexed his military muscle in the Middle East in an attempt to regain a dominant role in the region—while warning the US not to attack Assad’s military or face consequences.
Responding to Kerry’s latest comments about a war crimes probe, Russia said the US was simply trying to distract from its own failures in the region.
“It is very dangerous to play with such words because war crimes also weigh on the shoulders of American officials,” Russian new agencies quoted Foreign Ministry Spokesman Maria Zakharova as saying.
Kerry and Ayrault discussed a draft resolution France hopes to bring forward at an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting over the weekend. The resolution calls for an immediate halting to the bombing of Aleppo and the free passage of humanitarian aid to besieged enclaves. Russia has already labeled the draft “unacceptable” and will likely veto it.
“Tomorrow will be a moment of truth…for all the members of the Security Council,” Ayrault said, speaking through an interpreter, alongside Kerry. “Do you, yes or no, want a cease-fire in Aleppo? And the question is in particular for our Russian partners.”
Kerry and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, agreed to a partial cease-fire last month, but it quickly fell apart. It would have included new military cooperation between the two nations in targeting terrorist groups. That is off the table now, and the State Department says “all other options” are under consideration.
The US has repeatedly accused Moscow and Damascus of “indiscriminate” bombing of civilian targets, while Russia claims it is only targeting “terrorists.” Russia also claims the US has failed to uphold its part of the bargain, which included attempting to separate jihadist factions, including the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, from more moderate rebel groups that the US backs.