image Photo: Reuters

Int’l concerns rise over possible Russian war crimes in Ukraine

Outrage over alleged civilian killings by Russian forces in northern Ukraine are prompting calls from the world community to impose additional sanctions on Moscow ahead of an eventual trial on charges of war crimes.

By Erin Viner

Accusations against Moscow have mounted upon the reported discovery of 50 bodies found in Bucha. Deputy Mayor Taras Shapravskyi said Russian troops committed the extra-judicial killings before withdrawing late last week from the town some 40 km (25 miles) northwest of the capital Kyiv.

Many of the victims were said to have been shot at close range with their hands bound behind their back.

Satellite images show a 14 meter (45-foot) long trench dug in the grounds of a church where a mass grave was identified.

“These are war crimes and will be recognized by the world as genocide,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on national television from Bucha.

Zelenskyy, who will be addressing the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) later today, has warned that the death toll is likely to rise as more bodies are found in other areas reclaimed from the Russian invaders.

“We know of thousands of people killed and tortured, with severed limbs, raped women and murdered children,” said the Ukrainian leader.

The discoveries overshadowed peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv that had been slated to be resumed yesterday.

“It’s very difficult to talk when you see what they’ve done here,” said President Zelenskyy after emergence of the scale of the alleged atrocities. “The longer the Russian Federation drags out the negotiating process, the worse it is for them and for this situation and for this war,” he emphasized.

After Zelenskyy’s address, Ukrainian officials took journalists to the basement of what they said was a summer residence for children where there were bodies of five men dressed in civilian clothing with their hands tied behind their backs.

“They were shot, shot either in their head or in their chest. They were tortured before they were killed,” asserted Ukrainian Interior Ministry Advisor Anton Herashchenko.

Other alleged Russian atrocities include the discovery of 421 civilian casualties near Kyiv by Sunday; while Ukraine’s general staff said entire blocks of civilian structures including a children’s hospital in the southern city of Mykolayiv were targeted with cluster munitions banned by the Geneva Convention.

The Kremlin has categorically denied any accusations related to the murder of civilians during what it insists is a “special military operation” aimed at demilitarizing and “de-Nazifying” Ukraine.

Claiming that the graves and corpses in Bucha were staged by Ukraine to falsely incriminate Russia, Moscow said it will present “empirical evidence” of what it called lies by Ukraine and its Western backers to the UNSC.

“This information must be seriously questioned,” Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “From what we have seen, our experts have identified signs of video falsification and other fakes.”

The United States and Europe are now discussing the imposition of additional sanctions against Russia, possibly including some restrictions on the billions of dollars in energy that Europe still imports from Russia.

US President Joe Biden yesterday repeated his accusation that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. “This guy is brutal. And what’s happening in Bucha is outrageous, and everyone’s seen it,” he added, calling for the collection of evidence for “a war crimes trial.”

The US also said it will push for Russia to be suspended from the UN Human Rights Council.

High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said she war horrified by reports emerging from Bucha and other areas, that “raise serious and disturbing questions about possible war crimes, grave breaches of international humanitarian law and serious violations of international human rights law.”

“All measures should be taken to preserve evidence,” Bachelet stressed in a statement, adding, “It is vital that all efforts are made to ensure there are independent and effective investigations into what happened in Bucha to ensure truth, justice and accountability, as well as reparations and remedy for victims and their families.”

The UN human rights office has some 50 staff in Ukraine who have been monitoring the civilian death toll since Russia invaded the country on 24 February. So far, the agency has confirmed the deaths of 1,430 civilians while acknowledging that the actual toll is likely considerably higher.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has also used the term war crimes to describe Russia’s offensive in Ukraine, has suggested increasing sanctions on Russian oil and coal.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned that Putin and his supporters would “feel the consequences” of events in Bucha. Western allies will agree to slap further punitive measures against Russia in the coming days, he said, although their timing and reach are not yet clear. German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said the European Union must discuss banning Russian gas, which other officials cautioned could trigger an energy crisis on the continent. Over 50% of Germany’s gas came from Russia in 2021.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Monday it is “very clear” that war crimes have been committed by Russian military forces against civilians in Ukraine.

“We are all appalled by the scenes in Bucha, the butchery, the clear evidence of sexual crime, of the targeting of innocent civilians and it is very clear that war crimes have taken place,” Truss said at a press conference in Poland, while pointing out that “as to the question of genocide, that is a matter for the courts to determine.”

Israel, which has offered to mediate a resolution to the conflict, has been careful to maintain a careful balance over the war in Ukraine.

It is imperative that Israel preserve good relations with Russia, as the two countries utilize a defense coordination mechanism in Syria to prevent clashes between their militaries. Russian forces have been deployed to fight in the Syrian Civil War on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime, while Israel frequently launches operations against deployments by Iran and its regional proxies such as the Hezbollah terror group in the neighboring Arab Republic.

While Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has so far declined to speak out on the latest developments in Ukraine, other top government leaders have expressed outrage.

“It is impossible to remain indifferent in the face of the horrific images from the city of Bucha near Kyiv, from after the Russian Army left,” said Foreign Minister and Alternate Premier Yair Lapid, underscoring that, “Intentionally harming a civilian population is a war crime, and I strongly condemn it.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz also said he condemned “murder of this kind – it really is a war crime.” While speaking to the public KAN broadcaster, the top Israeli defense official stressed that, “Even in war, we must make sure to follow the values that are called morality in fighting.”