Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis smiles at attendees of the 2022 Cohen Lecture held at the University of Maine in Orono, April 4, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Two former U.S. defense secretaries said Monday at an appearance at the University of Maine that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a war criminal who is going to lose the war he is waging in neighboring Ukraine.

Jim Mattis and William Cohen made their comments as President Joe Biden called for the Russian autocrat to be tried in an international court for war crimes

During the UMaine lecture, Mattis and Cohen cast doubt on Putin’s ability to successfully lead his military and said responsibility for the atrocities perpetrated by Russian armed forces during the invasion of Ukraine rests solely with Putin.

Mattis, who was President Donald Trump’s first Secretary of Defense and guest at UMaine’s biannual Cohen lecture, said he thinks Putin has already lost the war he started. 

“He’s going to lose this gamble, and he’s going to lose it big,” Mattis said. 

Former Secretaries of Defense William Cohen (left), Jim Mattis (center) and the youngest living recipient of the Medal of Honor Kyle Carpenter speak at the 2022 Cohen Lecture at the University of Maine, April 4, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Mattis described acts such as shooting a man with his hands tied behind his back in the Ukrainian city Bucha and the Russian shelling of a Ukrainian maternity hospital in Mariupol as “crimes against humanity.” 

“There is no military reason to shoot someone whose hands are tied behind his back,” Mattis said. “There is no military reason to bomb a maternity hospital. These are crimes against humanity.”

In recent weeks, Russia has drawn more outcry over bodies in the streets of Ukrainian towns and cities of people who were seemingly shot on purpose. President Biden called for Putin’s prosecution as a war criminal soon after images from the Ukrainian town of Bucha, near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, and others were widely spread. 

According to Ukrainian authorities, so far more than 400 civilian corpses have been discovered. 

Cohen, a Bangor native who served as defense secretary under former President Bill Clinton after representing Maine in the U.S. House and Senate, said Europe is holding strong and supporting Ukraine, but said skepticism there is growing over the United States’ commitment to helping Ukraine and the European Union.

“I met with one European official this past Friday and they are strong on this. They worry if the United States will hold strong on this,” Cohen said.

As more and more images and videos surface showing evidence of alleged war crimes perpetrated by Russian forces, Cohen called Putin a war criminal and said he is responsible for these atrocities. 

“There is not a question in my mind, he is a war criminal,” Cohen said. “He should be designated as such.” 

When it comes to the growing threat of a nuclear war breaking out in Ukraine, Mattis said the U.S. needs to do whatever it can to prevent a conflict that pits NATO against Russia. While Mattis said he didn’t want to speculate on current prospects of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict going nuclear, he said intelligence while he was defense secretary pointed to a Putin policy that Mattis called “escalate to deescalate.” 

If Putin feels cornered, the situation could go nuclear, but the U.S. and its allies must work to prevent that, Mattis said. 

Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis shakes hands with attendees of the 2022 Cohen Lecture held at the University of Maine in Orono, April 4, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

While Cohen said that allies should provide more supplies to Ukraine, such as airplanes, Mattis emphasized a need for the U.S. to prevent the military conflict from growing into a global one. 

“Strategically, we are in a tough position. It’s morally offensive, repugnant, insulting to us, to watch what is happening to the Ukrainian people,” Mattis said. “But right now President Biden, I believe, must do everything he can to keep this war from spreading.” 

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...