Russia faced a fresh wave of condemnation on Monday after evidence emerged of what appeared to be deliberate killings of civilians in Ukraine. Some Western leaders called for further sanctions in response, even as Moscow continued to press its offensive in the country’s east.
Western allies, though united in outrage, appeared split on how to respond. Poland, which is on Ukraine’s border and has taken in large numbers of refugees, angrily singled out France and Germany for not taking more strident action and urged Europe to quickly wean itself off Russian energy, while Berlin said it would take a longer-term approach.
Ukrainian officials said the bodies of 410 civilians were found in towns around the capital, Kyiv, that were recaptured from Russian forces in recent days. In Bucha, northwest of the capital, Associated Press journalists saw 21 bodies. One group of nine, all in civilian clothes, were scattered around a site that residents said Russian troops used as a base. They appeared to have been shot at close range. At least two had their hands tied behind their backs.
In Motyzhyn, to the 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 bound and blindfolded — were among them.
“This is genocide, this is fascism. This is the extermination of people, innocent people, children, women, and the elderly,” said Olena Kolesnik, who fled Kharkiv for Poland. She described her hometown in Ukraine’s north as being in a state of ruin after weeks of shelling.
The images of battered corpses lying in the streets or hastily dug graves unleashed a wave of outrage that could signal a turning point in the nearly 6-week-old war. But sanctions have thus far failed to halt the offensive, and rising energy prices along with tight controls on the Russian currency market have blunted their impact, with the ruble rebounding strongly after initially crashing.
Western and Ukrainian leaders have accused Russia of war crimes before, and the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor has opened a probe to investigate the conflict. But the latest reports ratcheted up the condemnation even further, with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and some Western leaders 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 wholly 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 Sergey Lavrov rejected the allegations, describing the scenes outside Kyiv as a “stage-managed 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 scores of bodies were photographed scattered in the streets.
He said Russia is pushing for an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the matter, but the U.K., which currently chairs the body, has 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, left no doubt about who they thought was behind the killings.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said “the Russian authorities are responsible for these atrocities, committed while they had effective control of the area.”
“The perpetrators of war crimes and other serious violations as well as the responsible government officials and military leaders will be held accountable,” he added.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday that there is “clear evidence of war crimes” in Bucha that demand new measures. “I’m in favor of a new round of sanctions and in particular on coal and gasoline. We need to act,” he said on France-Inter radio.
But Poland’s prime minister, who described Russia under President Vladimir Putin as a “totalitarian-fascist state,” lashed out at 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?” Mateusz Morawiecki asked. “Chancellor Scholz, Olaf, it is not the voices of German businesses that should be heard aloud in Berlin today. It is the voice of these innocent women and children.”
He said “the bloody massacres perpetrated by Russian soldiers deserve to be called by name: This is genocide.” Spain’s prime minister also used the word “genocide.”
The U.S. and its allies have sought to punish Russia for the invasion by imposing sweeping economic sanctions. But they may be reluctant to impose measures that cause further harm 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 particular bind, since it gets 40% of its gas and 25% of its oil from Russia. Governments have been scrambling to find ways to reduce that reliance without causing a substantial loss of economic output.
German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, who is also the economy minister and responsible for energy, said Europe can go “significantly further” in imposing sanctions against Russia. But he said Germany is right to take a longer-term approach to abandoning Russian energy imports.
Germany has faced criticism for opposing an immediate halt to Russian energy deliveries. The country says it hopes to end Russian coal imports this summer and oil imports by the end of the year, but halting gas will take longer since it relies more heavily on it.
“We are working every day on creating the conditions for and steps toward an embargo,” Habeck said. “We are on the right track.”
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, though he provided no details.
Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion has left thousands of people dead and forced more than 4 million Ukrainians to flee their country. Putin has said the attack is aimed at eliminating a security threat and demanded that Ukraine drop its bid to join the NATO military alliance of Western countries. Ukraine insists it never posed any 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 Kremlin-friendly government, Russian forces faced stiff resistance outside the capital and on other fronts, and have now retreated from some areas. Moscow says it is currently focusing its offensive on the Donbas in the country’s east, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for years.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Monday that Russia continued to flood soldiers and mercenaries from the Wagner private military group into the Donbas. It said Russian troops are still trying to take the region’s 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 objective of the Russian invasion,” the ministry said, as it would provide a land corridor from Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
On Monday, the Ukrainian military said its forces had retaken some towns in the northern Chernihiv region and humanitarian aid was being delivered.