Ukraine’s president was planning to address the UN’s most powerful body on Tuesday after even more gruesome evidence emerged of massacres of civilians in areas from which Russian forces have recently withdrawn. Western countries have expelled dozens more diplomats from Moscow and proposed new sanctions as part of efforts to punish Russia for what they say are war crimes.
President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech to the Security Council will be rich in symbolism, but the invitation and other displays of Western support are unlikely to change the situation on the ground. He says his forces desperately need more powerful weapons, some of which the West has been reluctant to donate. Russia’s veto ensures the body will take no action, and it was unclear whether its representatives would even remain in the chamber for the video address.
The NATO chief, meanwhile, warned that Russia was pooling its forces to deploy to eastern and southern Ukraine for a “crucial phase of the war”, and said that other “atrocities” may be revealed as Russian troops continue to retreat north.
“When and if they withdraw their troops and Ukrainian troops take over, I fear they will see more mass graves, more atrocities and more examples of war crimes,” the secretary-general said. of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg.
Ukrainian officials said the bodies of at least 410 civilians were found in towns around kyiv that were retaken from Russian forces and that a “torture chamber” was discovered in the town called Bucha. where some of the darker details emerged.
Police and other investigators marched through the quiet streets of Bucha on Tuesday, taking notes of the bodies residents showed them. Survivors who hid in their homes during the month-long Russian occupation of the city, many of them past middle age, wandered past charred tanks and ragged windows with plastic bags containing food and other humanitarian aid. Red Cross workers checked the intact houses.
Associated Press reporters in town counted dozens of corpses in civilian clothes. Many appeared to have been shot at close range, and some had their hands tied or their flesh burned. A mass grave in a cemetery contained bodies wrapped in plastic.
High-resolution satellite imagery from commercial provider Maxar Technologies, meanwhile, showed that many bodies had lain out in the open for weeks while Russian forces were in the city. The New York Times first reported on the footage showing the dead.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Bucha’s footage revealed “a deliberate campaign to kill, torture, rape, commit atrocities”. He told reporters that the information was “more than credible” and strengthens the resolve of countries around the world to hold those responsible to account and to support Ukraine.
“Only non-humans are capable of this,” said Angelica Chernomor, a refugee from kyiv who crossed over to Poland with her two children and who had seen Bucha’s photos. “Even if people live under a totalitarian regime, they have to maintain feelings, dignity, but they don’t.”
Chernomor is one of more than 4 million Ukrainians who fled the country following the February 24 invasion. More than 7 million more people have been displaced inside Ukraine, the UN migration agency estimates.
Russia has dismissed claims of atrocities, with officials repeatedly claiming without evidence that the scenes were faked. Moscow said it would speak about Bucha at the UN on Tuesday, indicating that its representatives will attend at least part of the meeting.
Russia has sought to refute similar accusations against his forces in the past by accusing his enemies of falsifying photos and videos, and using so-called crisis actors. Western officials and independent journalists say Russia is spreading disinformation to cover up its actions.
As Western leaders condemned the killings of Bucha, Italy, Spain and Denmark expelled dozens of Russian diplomats Tuesday, following the movements of Germany and France. Hundreds of Russian diplomats have been sent home since the invasion began, many of whom are accused of being spies.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the expulsions a “short-sighted” measure that would complicate communication and warned they would face “reciprocal measures”.
In another show of support, the executive branch of the European Union proposed a coal import ban of Russia, in what would be the bloc’s first sanctions targeting the country’s lucrative energy industry during the war. European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who plans to travel to Kyiv to meet Zelenskyy this week, linked the ban on coal imports, worth 4 billion euros ( 4.4 billion dollars) a year, to “heinous crimes” around kyiv.
The 27-nation EU has been a strong supporter of Ukraine since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24 and has already imposed four rounds of sanctions, but Ukrainian officials have begged for more.
Just hours before the latest proposal was announced, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that to prevent ‘new Buchas’ the West must impose the ‘mother of all sanctions’ – on oil and Russian gas. “A few months of belt-tightening is worth thousands of lives saved,” he said.
But Western nations are divided on how far to go. Some are calling for a boycott of Russian oil and gas imports, while Germany and others fear such a move could plunge the continent in a serious economic crisis. And NATO countries have refused to hand over some of the most powerful weapons Zelenskyy has requested, such as fighter jets.
Their supply of other weapons and equipment has been credited with helping Ukraine mount a firmer-than-expected resistance to overwhelming Russian firepower. This resistance prevented Russian forces from invading the capital and other cities, and many troops have now withdrawn from areas around Kyiv.
But Western and Ukrainian officials say Russia is just regrouping for another offensive.
“Moscow is not giving up on its ambitions in Ukraine,” said Stoltenberg, the NATO chief. “We expect a further push into eastern and southern Ukraine to try to take all of Donbass and create a land bridge” to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. The separatists backed by Russia in the Donbass have been fighting Ukrainian troops for the past eight years.
Stoltenberg insisted the alliance will stand ready to help Ukraine with military hardware, a day after Zelenskyy called for more weapons.
The Ukrainian military says that in Donbass, Russia is focusing on seizing the towns of Popasna and Rubizhne in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the Azov seaport of Mariupol, which has seen weeks of heavy fighting in a huge cost for the city and its inhabitants.
Ukraine’s governor of Luhansk on Tuesday urged residents to stay indoors, close windows and doors and prepare wet masks after a Russian strike hit a storage tank containing nitric acid near Rubizhne, which the Russians tried to seize. The Russian military did not comment on the alleged strike, and it could not be independently verified.
For her part, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said that seven humanitarian corridors will be opened on Tuesday, including from besieged Mariupol, where 1,500 civilians were able to escape on Monday in private vehicles, as well as from Berdyansk under Russian control.
But it was not immediately clear whether Russia had agreed to stop the fighting along the corridors. Previous efforts to bring civilians to safety through humanitarian corridors have failed due to renewed fighting.
An international Red Cross team has given up entering Mariupol until at least Tuesday after several days of trying to bring aid to the beleaguered city and help escort civilians.
—Oleksandr Stashevskyi, The Associated Press