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Russia reacts to Vice President Harris's comments at the Munich Security Conference

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

At a major annual defense conference in Germany, Vice President Kamala Harris said U.S. criticism of Russia over its war in Ukraine to a new level. She accused Russia of committing crimes against humanity.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: And I say to all those who have perpetrated these crimes and to their superiors who are complicit in these crimes, you will be held to account.

RASCOE: NPR's Charles Maynes joins us now from Moscow. Welcome to the show.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

RASCOE: You know, crimes against humanity - like, that is not a light charge coming from the vice president of the United States, to say the least. Have we heard anything from Moscow about what was said?

MAYNES: Yeah, nothing from the Kremlin. But we did hear from Anatoly Antonov, Russia's ambassador to the U.S. In a statement released on social media. Antonov called the vice president's claims a cynical attempt to demonize Russia and a way to justify the U.S. giving more arms to Kyiv. Now, Moscow has repeatedly denied targeting civilians. It argues atrocities, including several of which Harris noted in her speech, were either staged or committed by Ukrainian forces against their own population to blacken Russia's name. In fact, Antonov argued that it was the U.S. turning a blind eye to human rights abuses by Ukraine. Now, to be fair, a United Nations investigation did indeed find evidence of some violations by Ukrainian forces. But the U.N. report found Russia's armed forces responsible for, quote, "the vast majority." Moscow doesn't like to mention that.

RASCOE: So Harris says that Russia will be held to account. Do we know what that means? And can the U.S. actually do that?

MAYNES: It's a good question. You know, the International Criminal Court would, in theory, handle a trial dealing with crimes against humanity, including against senior government figures. But neither Russia nor Ukraine nor, for that matter, the U.S. is a signatory to the statute that created the court. So the ICC would seem to have no jurisdiction here.

RASCOE: This year's Munich Conference was the first time since the '90s that Russian officials weren't invited. You know, of course, the reason for that is because of the war in Ukraine. You know, how has that kind of snub gone over in Moscow?

MAYNES: You know, officially, there's kind of a shrug. You know, the Kremlin argues the conference has become an event under the thumb of the U.S. and lost its inclusiveness and objectivity. But let's face it. You know, this is yet another forum to which Russia is no longer welcome or to which Russia has cut ties, depending on how you look at it. Russia declined to send its delegation last year. Pointedly, the organizers have offered seats to prominent Kremlin critics, including former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, chess champion Garry Kasparov, also Yulia Navalnaya. This is the wife of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. So it's not as though there aren't any Russians there.

RASCOE: As we approach a year since the start of the war, President Biden heads to Poland, where he'll give a major speech on Tuesday. How is the event being marked in Moscow?

MAYNES: Well, it turns out there will be dueling speeches. Putin will also give an address, his state of the nation address to parliament on Tuesday. That'll be focused on Ukraine. As to what to expect, you know, it's really anyone's guess. But Russians seem to be divided into two general camps. One argues we'll see Putin do more of the same, repeating past claims that this is a necessary war in Ukraine to defend against Western aggression and really preparing Russians for a long war and tough road ahead. The other camp argues Putin wouldn't engage in this kind of a public exercise unless he had a big surprise in whatever form that might take. And there's a massive rally planned in Moscow's largest stadium on Wednesday where Putin will join, and that suggests he has something he may want to frame as a celebration.

RASCOE: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow, thank you so much for joining us.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.