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Russia accused of civilian massacres outside Kyiv

Russia is being accused of civilian massacres in towns its troops have withdrawn from outside Kyiv, plunging the Ukraine war into a new, grim phase. Western leaders vowed to impose even more sanctions on Russia as accusations of “genocide” grow.

(CN) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday accused Russian troops of allegedly killing hundreds of civilians in towns and villages outside Kyiv before they withdrew in recent days.

The accusations of civilian massacres — as seen in widely shared videos and photographs — were presented on Sunday and led to widespread condemnation by Western leaders, who vowed to impose even more sanctions on Russia. European leaders said they will consider an embargo on Russian oil and natural gas. The town of Bucha northwest of Kyiv was allegedly the scene of the most numerous crimes so far discovered.

On Monday, U.S. President Joe Biden again called Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal who needs to be put on trial.

Calls are growing for Putin and others in his government to face charges at a war crimes tribunal. Some political experts warn that Biden risks inflaming the war by calling Putin a war criminal, because the Kremlin leader will see even less reason to negotiate an end to the conflict.

“You may remember I got criticized for calling Putin a war criminal,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “Well, the truth of the matter — we saw it happen in Bucha — this warrants it. He is a war criminal.”

Zelenskyy went further and called it “genocide.” Biden declined to call it genocide when asked.

“These are war crimes and will be recognized by the world as genocide,” Zelenskyy said. “We know of thousands of people killed and tortured, with severed limbs, raped women and murdered children.”

Since Putin ordered the invasion on Feb. 24, both sides have accused the other of committing genocide. Putin accused Ukraine of genocide against ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, where a war has been waged since 2014 between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces. There is evidence of war crimes in eastern Ukraine, but most experts say the violence there did not amount to genocide.

In a visit to Bucha, Zelenskyy said negotiating a ceasefire and peace deal with Russia has been made only more difficult due to the alleged Russian massacres.

Photographs and videos showed at least two streets in Bucha strewn with the bodies of what appeared to be mostly dead men. Other photographs showed dead people with their hands tied behind their backs shot inside a basement, while several bodies were photographed lying in an open space outside buildings. Atrocities allegedly took place in other towns around Kyiv, including Irpin and Gostomel.

Other alleged victims of Russian atrocities were buried in sand pit in a forest. There were accusations of torture too.

Russian troops started to withdraw from around the immediate vicinity of Kyiv last week following a round of peace talks in Istanbul. The withdrawal was further sign of Russian defeats in an invasion that many Western analysts believe has become a massive failure for Putin. Russia's general staff said the withdrawal concluded the first phase of the invasion and that forces would be redeployed toward the battle for eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin denied the allegations of war crimes around Kyiv and accused Ukrainian forces of staging the atrocities as a provocation to stir up more animosity toward Russia. Russian sources pointed to videos taken while Bucha was being captured, in which the Bucha mayor, Anatoly Fedoruk, does not mention dead civilians in the streets. They say that some of the victims allegedly wore white bands on their arms, an indication they might have been pro-Russians or civilians seeking to show Russian troops that they were not dangerous.

Russian forces often wear white armbands to distinguish themselves, while Ukrainian soldiers wear blue and yellow bands. Russian sources accused Ukrainian agents of shooting pro-Russian Ukrainians before blaming Russia for their deaths.

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Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that the “video materials mostly can’t be trusted, because [of] signs of video manipulation and some fakes.”

Accusations of genocide are growing as the Daily Mirror, a British tabloid, ran a front-page headline that screamed “Genocide” on Monday and newspapers, politicians and pundits compared these grisly deaths to the massacre of Srebrenica during the Bosnian War.

Eugene Finkel, a Ukrainian-born politics professor who studies mass violence and genocide at the Johns Hopkins University's international campus in Italy, said he has come to regard Russia's attack on Ukraine as genocide.

“Until this morning I resisted applying the term” of genocide, he said on Twitter. “War crimes? Sure. Heinous rhetoric? You bet. What changed is the combination of more and more evidence, from different places, and even more importantly, explicit official rhetoric.”

Finkel said there is mounting evidence from around Ukraine of a deliberate Russian campaign of violence against Ukrainians backed by government propaganda and state media.

He pointed to an opinion piece in RIA Novosti, a Russian state news agency, advocating the eradication of Ukraine as a nation as damning evidence that the Russian state has become genocidal. In the piece, Timfofey Sergeytsev, a Russian philosopher, argues that Ukraine is an irredeemable “Nazi state” that must be done away with and replaced by new republics under the tutelage of Russia.

Finkel said the official definition of genocide is “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

“When I teach genocide I start by saying that this definition has huge problems because it doesn't give us clear thresholds,” Finkel said, “and because it is almost impossible to prove intent.”

But he said the RIA Novosti piece combined with the atrocities documented in Ukraine support accusations of genocide.

“This is not some wild intellectual fantasy, it is a clear, actionable statement of intent by a state agency,” Finkel said about the RIA Novosti article. “The UN definition [of genocide] is problematic, but in this case it fits like a glove.”

In the piece, Sergeytsev echoes points of view Putin has expressed about how Ukraine as a state is a construct with no historical legitimacy. Last summer, Putin wrote a long essay that caused concern among many Russia experts who said the Kremlin leader was denying Ukraine's right to exist.

Speaking to the Romanian parliament on Monday, Zelenskyy too pointed to the RIA Novosti piece as proof that the Russian state is sanctioning genocide.

“It is said that even the name of our state should be erased. Virtually, it is said that the deaths of as many of our people in the war are only welcomed,” Zelensky said, according to Ukrinform, a Ukrainian state new agency. “This is the website of the state news agency of Russia, where, under conditions of explicit state censorship, only materials that correspond to the official ideological position on the war against Ukraine can be published.”

On Monday, European Union leaders said they were appalled by the latest evidence of Russian atrocities and that they will consider an embargo on Russian oil and natural gas, a move that would seriously hurt European economies already reeling from inflation and the damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi called the crimes in Bucha and other areas around Kyiv “shocking” and said Italy would support an embargo on Russian energy exports. Italy relies heavily on energy imports.

Meanwhile, fighting continued to rage on Monday, 40 days after Putin launched the Ukraine invasion, bringing a major war back to Europe.

Fighting continued in Mariupol, a key southeastern port city that has been largely destroyed. Russian forces are closing in on groups of Ukrainian fighters reportedly holding out inside a large steelworks plant and in the port.

On Monday, there were reports of missile strikes and attacks on Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city in the northeast, and Ukraine's military commanders warned of an all-out assault on the city. It has been under attack and largely encircled since the beginning of the invasion and scores of civilians are believed to have been killed in the hard-hit city. So far, though, Russian troops have not tried to enter the city and seize it.

Throughout the weekend and into Monday, Russian missiles also continued to strike fuel depots, ammunition sites and oil refineries in many parts of Ukraine. Russia is trying to cripple Ukraine's ability to keep its military on the move.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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