BUCHA, Ukraine (AP) — 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.
Germany’s defense minister suggested the European Union discuss a ban on Russian gas imports, but more senior officials indicated an immediate boycott was not possible — a sign that leaders could struggle in the short-term to ramp up already severe sanctions on Russia.
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.
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.
In a video shown during the Grammy Awards in Las Vegas for musicians and other artists, Zelenskyy implored them to support his nation and “fill the silence with your music.”
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 petrol. We need to act,” he said on France-Inter radio.
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki described Russia as a “totalitarian-fascist state,” saying “the bloody massacres perpetrated by Russian soldiers deserve to be called by name: This is genocide.” Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez also used the word “genocide,” saying those responsible should answer for their crimes.
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.
In the meantime, 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.
“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, without elaborating.
Asked on ARD television Sunday evening whether there should be a halt to gas deliveries, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht replied that “exactly that” should be discussed by EU ministers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion has killed thousands of people 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.
The head of Ukraine’s delegation in talks with Russia has said Moscow’s negotiators informally agreed to most of a draft proposal discussed during talks in Istanbul, but no written confirmation has been provided.
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 will secure a land corridor from Russia to the occupied territory of Crimea,” in the south, 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.