Zelensky said Russian troops have tortured and killed civilians, burned bodies and raped women in front of their children. His video of him showed images of charred bodies, severed limbs and mass graves. While The Washington Post could not independently confirm the accuracy of the stylized presentation, many similar images have been verified in recent days. And journalists who have entered parts of Ukraine recently cleared of Russian troops have published multiple interviews about atrocities allegedly committed during the invasion.
The presentation appeared to unsettle diplomats at the council; even nations that have been painstakingly neutral through many meetings about the Ukraine situation, such as India, lined up to call for an independent investigation into the alleged atrocities. But diplomats, limited by Russia’s ability to veto any resolutions under its powers as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, did not take any action in response to Zelensky’s proposal to lift Moscow’s membership in the Human Rights Council.
In shattered Chernihiv, survivors ask, ‘Why?’
Many of the photos in Zelensky’s video were said to have been taken in Bucha, a town outside of Kyiv recently retaken by Ukrainian forces, where Russian troops have been accused of killing numerous civilians. Publication of verified images from Bucha over the weekend led to widespread outrage and calls for the international community to increase its pressure on Russia for a cease fire and withdrawal of its forces from Ukraine.
Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, told the council that the reports of Russian involvement in the Bucha deaths were “fake,” and that Ukrainian “Nazis” were responsible for war crimes.
But Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking to reporters as he left Washington for a NATO meeting in Brussels, called the reports of Russian responsibility “more than credible.” The alleged massacres were “not the random act of a rogue unit,” he said, but a “deliberate campaign to kill, to torture, to rape, to commit atrocities.”
“The evidence is there for the world to see,” Blinken said. “This reinforces our determination and the determination of countries around the world to make sure that one way or another, one day or another, there is accountability for those who committed these acts.”
Ukrainian human rights organizations and prosecutors are gathering information in Bucha and around the country for what Zelensky said should be an international tribunal to prosecute Russian government and military officials for war crimes. France said its counterterrorism prosecutor’s office had opened three probes into alleged crimes by Russian forces, claiming jurisdiction because of acts in Ukrainian cities that were likely to have affected French nationals.
Town by town, Ukrainian prosecutors build war crimes cases
In a move responding to the alleged massacres, the European Commission proposed a new package of sanctions Tuesday, including a ban on Russian coal imports, sanctions on four Russian banks and a ban on Russian vessels from European ports, among other measures. The proposal is to be debated by the European Union’s ambassadors on Wednesday.
“These atrocities cannot and will not be left unanswered,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “It is important to sustain maximum pressure on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the Russian government at this crucial point.” But the package does not meet demands for an embargo on Russian oil or natural gas and is unlikely to quiet calls for the EU to do more.
As Russia’s isolation from the West deepened, the EU joined a number of countries that have expelled Russian diplomats, saying it had declared 19 members of Russia’s EU mission in Brussels persona non grata for “activities contrary to their diplomatic mission.”
The US Treasury Department this week prohibited Russia from withdrawing funds held in American banks to pay debt obligations, an attempt to force the Kremlin to pick between a catastrophic default and other difficult economic measures. And the Biden administration on Wednesday will announce sanctions including a ban on all new investment in Russia, sanctions on Russian banks and state-owned enterprises, and additional sanctions on Russian government officials, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect measures not yet announced.
The Biden administration on Tuesday approved sending additional Javelin antitank missile systems to Ukraine to aid in its defense against Russia. The $100 million worth of Javelins is the sixth such drawdown of equipment from the Pentagon’s inventories since August, said Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby.
Also Tuesday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, endorsed the idea of steadily rotating US troops to NATO countries as a way of bolstering its border with Russia.
“My advice would be to create permanent bases but don’t permanently station,” Milley told the House Armed Services Committee. Rotating forces through permanent bases would be cheaper, he said, because it would remove the need for things like family housing and schools. Eastern European countries might even be willing to pay for the bases, Milley said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, testifying alongside Milley, was more circumspect, saying that NATO would discuss any change in its European “footprint” at its planned summit in June.
Ukraine villagers describe cruel and brutal Russian occupation
While the Security Council could not take any action over Moscow’s objection, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield urged nations to vote to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council — a move that requires a two-thirds vote of all member nations and would not be subject to a veto.
“Russia should not have a position of authority in a body whose purpose is to promote respect for human rights,” she told the Council session. “Not only is it the height of hypocrisy, it is dangerous. Russia is using its membership on the Human Rights Council as a platform for propaganda to suggest Russia has a legitimate concern for human rights.”
The 193-member General Assembly last month overwhelmingly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which indicates a suspension — reserved for countries that persistently violate human rights — would be approved.
In his response to Zelensky, Russian UN ambassador Nebenzya addressed the Ukrainian president by his first name and Russian patronymic, telling him: “We place on your conscience the ungrounded accusations against the Russian military, which are not confirmed by any eyewitnesses.”
Russia’s goal in Ukraine, he said, was “not to conquer lands” but to bring “peace to the blood-soaked land of Donbas,” the largely Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainian region where Russian troops and mercenaries have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014 “We need to root out the cruelty, cut out the malignant Nazi tumor,” Nebenzya said. “We will achieve that goal.”
But Moscow’s claims faced stiff pushback in the council from countries including France, Norway, Britain and the United States, as well as UN officials. Secretary General António Guterres denounced the “senseless loss of life” and “destruction of civilian infrastructure” and added his support from him to calls for an independent investigation. Undersecretary General Rosemary A. DiCarlo called on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine and said serious violations of international law must be held to account.
Zelensky, seizing on the stomach-churning images of bodies bound at the wrists with bullet wounds to the head, called on the international community to bring Russian leaders and soldiers before a special tribunal to be tried “immediately.”
If the United Nations is incapable of preventing violations such as Russia’s in Ukraine, and of fostering peace, it should dissolve itself, Zelensky said: “Admit it if there is nothing you can do besides conversation.”
US and European officials have said privately that although Zelensky’s requests have at times been implausible, they have had the effect of pushing world leaders beyond their comfort zone, such as providing more powerful weapons to Ukraine or implementing sanctions that hurt Russia but increase costs of gas and other products for their own citizenry.
Nebenzya, speaking again in response to interventions from other members, offered a lengthy timeline that he said demonstrated how Ukrainian, not Russian, forces were responsible for any atrocities. Russian troops, he said, had withdrawn from Bucha last Wednesday, March 30, three days before Reports of tortured, shot and burned bodies lying in the streets were widely circulated.
“Without any evidence, based on a presumption of guilt, the Russian army is being accused of some kind of evil deeds,” Nebenzya said.
Behind Putin’s ‘denazification’ claim
Addressing “my colleagues” on the council through an UN interpreter, he said “we understand very well that what you’re doing by fueling anti-Russia hysteria every single day, so we are assuming that there will be further horrible provocations similar to the one in Bucha … new attempts to discredit Russian soldiers and present them as murderers and rapists.” It was, he said, an “incredibly low blow.”
He then glared across the council chamber at Ukrainian UN Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya, who called Russia a hypocrite, asking: “When have you started enjoying acting like Nazis? Killing civilians, attempting to redraw internationally recognized borders… setting the task to finally resolve the Ukraine issue, like Hitler attempted to resolve the Jewish issue?”
Offering “a reminder, to Putin’s diplomats,” Kyslytsya recalled that officials from Nazi Germany, such as Joachim von Ribbentrop, who served as Hitler’s foreign minister, “denied any knowledge of concentration camps, racial extermination policies, yet was found guilty at the Nuremberg war crimes trial.”
“And we all know what happened to him on the 16th of October 1946,” Kyslytsya said, recalling the date when Ribbentrop was executed.
Karoun Demirjian and Missy Ryan in Washington; Robert Klemko in Kosiv, Ukraine; Rick Noak in Paris; Emily Rauhala in Brussels and Bryan Pietsch in Seoul contributed to this report.