Russia faced a fresh wave of condemnations on Monday after evidence emerged of what appeared to be deliberate killings of civilians in Ukraine. Some Western leaders called for new sanctions in response, even as Moscow continued its offensive in the east of the country.
European allies, though united in outrage, appeared divided on how to respond. Poland, which borders Ukraine and has taken in large numbers of refugees, has sharply criticized France and Germany for not taking more strident action and urged Europe to wean itself off. Russian energy quickly, while Berlin has said it will take a longer-term approach. .
Ukrainian officials said the bodies of 410 civilians were found in towns around the capital, Kyiv, which had been retaken from Russian forces in recent days. In Bucha, northwest of the capital, Associated Press reporters saw 21 bodies, including a group of nine people in civilian clothes who appeared to have been shot at close range. At least two had their hands tied behind their backs.
In Motyzhyn, west of kyiv, AP journalists saw the bodies of four people who appeared to have been shot at close range and thrown into a pit. Residents said the mayor, her son and her husband – who had been tied up and blindfolded – were among them.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made his first reported foray out of the capital since the start of the war, traveling to Bucha on Monday to meet locals. There he denounced the killings as “genocide” and “war crimes”.
Olena Kolesnik, who fled Kharkiv for Poland, echoed that assessment.
“It’s genocide, it’s fascism. It’s the extermination of people, of innocent people, of children, of women and of the elderly,” she said, while describing her city home in northern Ukraine as being in ruins after weeks of bombardment.
Images of beaten corpses lying in the streets or hastily dug graves have sparked a wave of outrage that could signal a turning point in the nearly 6-week war. But the sanctions have so far failed to halt the offensive, and rising energy prices along with tight controls on Russia’s foreign exchange market have softened their impact, with the ruble rebounding strongly from its slump. initial.
Western and Ukrainian leaders have already accused Russia of war crimes and the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation to investigate the conflict. But the latest reports have further strengthened the condemnation, with Zelenskyy and others going so far as to accuse Russia of genocide.
The crime of genocide is difficult to prove, as prosecutors would have to show that the killers or their commanders had a “specific intent” to partially or totally destroy a group of people – but the use of the word has clear emotional resonance and could serve to draw even more attention to the conflict.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the allegations, describing the scenes outside kyiv as an “orchestrated anti-Russian provocation”. He said the mayor of Bucha made no mention of atrocities a day after Russian troops left last week, but two days later dozens of bodies were photographed strewn in the streets.
He said Russia was pushing for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the issue, but the UK, which currently chairs the body, refused to convene it. The United States and Britain have accused Russia in recent weeks of using Security Council meetings to spread disinformation.
European leaders, meanwhile, have left no doubt about who they believe to be behind the killings.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said “the Russian authorities are responsible for these atrocities, committed while they effectively controlled the area.”
“Perpetrators of war crimes and other serious violations as well as government officials and military leaders will be held accountable,” he added.
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday that there is “clear evidence of war crimes” in Bucha that demands further action. “I am in favor of a new series of sanctions, particularly on coal and gasoline. We must act,” he told France-Inter radio.
But the Polish prime minister, who has described Russia under President Vladimir Putin as a “totalitarian-fascist state”, lambasted German and French leaders by name for not doing more, while calling for actions “that will finally break Putin’s war machine.
“President Macron, how many times have you negotiated with Putin? What have you achieved? … Would you negotiate with Hitler, with Stalin, with Pol Pot? asked Mateusz Morawiecki. “Chancellor Scholz, Olaf, it is not the voices of German business that should be heard aloud in Berlin today. It is the voice of those innocent women and children.
He said that “the bloody massacres perpetrated by Russian soldiers deserve to be called by their name: it is genocide”. The Spanish Prime Minister also used the word “genocide”.
But election victories for Russia-friendly incumbent right-wing parties in Hungary and Serbia over the weekend highlighted other potential cracks in Western opposition to the invasion.
The United States and its allies sought to punish Russia for the invasion by imposing sweeping economic sanctions. But they may be reluctant to impose measures that cause more damage to a global economy still recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. As a major oil and gas exporter, Russia stands to benefit from any rise in already high global energy prices.
Europe is in a special situation, since it derives 40% of its gas and 25% of its oil from Russia. Governments have struggled to find ways to reduce this dependency without causing a substantial loss of economic output. Over the weekend, Lithuania announced that it was completely cutting off gas imports from Russia.
German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, who is also economy minister and responsible for energy, said Europe could go “much further” by imposing sanctions on Russia. But he said Germany was right to take a longer-term approach to ditch Russian energy imports.
Germany has been criticized for opposing an immediate halt to Russian energy supplies. The country says it hopes to end Russian coal imports this summer and oil imports by the end of the year, but the gas shutdown will take longer as it depends more heavily on it.
“We are working every day to create the conditions and steps towards an embargo,” Habeck said. “We are on the right path.”
Wolfgang Buechner, a German government spokesman, meanwhile said Putin and his supporters will “feel the consequences” of additional measures to be approved in the coming days, although he did not provide any details.
Putin’s invasion on February 24 killed thousands and forced more than 4 million Ukrainians to flee their country. Putin said the attack was aimed at eliminating a security threat and demanded that Ukraine drop its bid to join the Western NATO military alliance. Ukraine insists it has never posed a threat, but has offered to officially declare itself neutral.
While Western officials initially said they believed Putin’s goal was to take kyiv and potentially install a pro-Kremlin government, Russian forces faced stiff resistance outside the capital. and on other fronts, and have now withdrawn from certain areas. Moscow says it is currently focusing its offensive on Donbass in the east of the country, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for years.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on Monday that Russia was continuing to flood soldiers and mercenaries from the private military group Wagner into the Donbass. He said Russian troops were still trying to take the strategic port city of Mariupol, which has seen weeks of heavy fighting and some of the worst suffering of the war.
“Mariupol is almost certainly a key target for the Russian invasion,” the ministry said, as it would provide a land corridor between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
On Monday, the Ukrainian army said its forces had recaptured some towns in the northern Chernihiv region and humanitarian aid was on the way.
—Oleksandr Stashevskyi and Nebi Qena, The Associated Press