BUCHA, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday described as “genocide” the killings of civilians in the town of Bucha during a visit to the Kyiv suburb after Ukrainian troops reclaimed the town from Russian forces.
“These are war crimes and it will be recognized by the world as genocide,” Zelensky said in Bucha, where bodies were discovered strewn throughout the town after it was reclaimed by Kyiv’s army.
“You stand here today and see what happened. We know that thousands of people have been killed and tortured with extremities cut off, women raped, children killed,” he told reporters wearing a bulletproof vest and accompanied by military personnel.
“It’s genocide,” he added.
Ukraine and Western nations have accused Russian troops of war crimes after the discovery of mass graves and apparently executed civilians at Bucha, prompting vows of action at the International Criminal Court.
Russia’s defense ministry denied its troops had killed civilians in the town recently retaken by Ukrainian soldiers.
Britain, France, Germany, the United States and NATO all voiced horror at the images from Bucha, where some of the bodies lying in public appeared to have been bound by their hands and feet before being shot. Roughly 280 other bodies were found in a half-dug mass grave, according to the town’s mayor.
The full extent of the bloodshed in the Kyiv area has yet to emerge, but by all accounts, the horrors in the shattered southern port city of Mariupol are likely to be even worse.
“This is a war of murders, a lot of blood. A lot of civilians are dying,” said Natalia Svitlova, a refugee from Dnipro in eastern Ukraine who fled to Poland. “I don’t understand why this is possible in the 21st century and why no one can stop it.”
Moscow continued to press its offensive in eastern Ukraine, where little news has made it to the outside world since the war began Feb. 24. Russia, in pulling back from the capital, has said its main focus is gaining control of the Donbas, the largely Russian-speaking industrial region in the country’s east that includes Mariupol.
European allies, though united in outrage over the aftermath outside Kyiv, appeared split on how to respond.
Poland, which is on Ukraine’s border and has taken in large numbers of refugees, angrily singled out France and Germany for not taking tougher action and urged Europe to quickly wean itself off Russian energy. But Germany said it would stick with a more gradual approach of phasing out coal and oil imports over the next several months.
Western and Ukrainian leaders have accused Russia of war crimes before, and the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor has opened an investigation. But the latest reports ratcheted up the condemnation.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said, “The Russian authorities are responsible for these atrocities, committed while they had effective control of the area.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said 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 gasoline. We need to act,” he said on France-Inter radio.
But Poland’s prime minister, who described Russia under Putin as a “totalitarian-fascist state,” called for actions “that will finally break Putin’s war machine.”
“President Macron, how many times have you negotiated with Putin? What have you achieved?… Would you negotiate with Hitler, with Stalin, with Pol Pot?” Mateusz Morawiecki asked.
The US 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.
Europe is in a particular bind, since it gets 40% of its gas and 25% of its oil from Russia.
Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion has left thousands of people dead and forced more than 4 million Ukrainians to flee their country.
Putin has said the attack is aimed at eliminating a security threat and has demanded that Ukraine drop its bid to join NATO. Ukraine insists it never posed any threat but has offered to officially declare itself neutral.
While Western officials initially said they believed Putin’s goal was to take Kyiv and install a Kremlin-friendly government, Russian forces faced stiff resistance outside the capital and on other fronts, and have now retreated from some areas.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russia continues to flood soldiers and mercenaries from the Wagner military group into the Donbas. It said Russian troops are still trying to take Mariupol, which has seen weeks of heavy fighting and some of the worst suffering of the war.