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Four weeks into Ukraine invasion, evidence points to Russian war crimes, U.S. says

Biden administration cites attacks on hospitals as NATO leaders prepare to increase pressure on Moscow

The site of a rocket explosion where a shopping mall used to be in Kyiv, Ukraine. The rocket hit the site on March 20. (Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images)

U.S. intelligence agencies see concrete evidence of war crimes by Russian troops in Ukraine, the Biden administration said Wednesday, as President Biden arrived in Europe to rally NATO support for ramping up economic and military pressure against Moscow.

Russia launched fresh missile strikes against residential neighborhoods in Kyiv and other key cities as the war reached the four-week mark, while Ukrainian troops pressed ahead with a counteroffensive that liberated parts of Makariv, a strategic suburb west of the capital that came under attack by Russian forces three weeks ago.

The counterattack dealt a blow to Moscow’s efforts to encircle Kyiv. But journalists visiting the enclave witnessed savage shelling and said Russian occupiers continued to hold parts of the town. Russian troops have suffered heavy losses in Ukraine, including between 7,000 to 15,000 deaths since start of the invasion, according to a new estimate by a senior NATO military official.

Airstrikes and shelling by Russia have devastated civilian infrastructure across large swaths of the country, including schools and hospitals. The World Health Organization on Wednesday said it had confirmed 64 attacks on health-care facilities, patients and medical workers during the nearly month-old war, killing 15 people and wounding 37.

“Health systems, facilities and health workers are not — and should never be — a target,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference.

Rescuers rushed to rescue people beneath the rubble after a shopping district in northwest Kyiv was shelled on March 20, Ukraine's state emergency service said. (Video: The Washington Post)

This Ukrainian city has held off Russian forces. But the bodies are piling up.

Such attacks are partly behind the White House’s claim of war crimes by Russian troops. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, citing a “careful review” of intelligence assessments and publicly available imagery, said the evidence appeared conclusive, although it would have to be formally reviewed by a court. Blinken specifically pointed to Russian strikes against facilities that clearly are identified as civilian.

“Putin’s forces used these same tactics in Grozny, Chechnya, and Aleppo, Syria, where they intensified their bombardment of cities to break the will of the people,” Blinken said in a statement. “Their attempt to do so in Ukraine has again shocked the world.”

Biden last week had called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal,” a remark that prompted the Russian government to summon the U.S. ambassador to deliver a protest. And Blinken previously had said he believed war crimes had taken place.

Biden is expected to echo some of the same themes in meetings with NATO and Group of Seven leaders this week. The president flew to Brussels on Wednesday for emergency summits, and he is expected to make a stop in Poland on Friday.

Amid preparations for the meetings, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the alliance would deploy new battle groups to countries on its eastern flank. Stoltenberg said four groups will be sent to Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia as part of an “immediate” response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while leaders discuss longer-term plans.

Stoltenberg, speaking to reporters in Brussels, also called on Russia to stop its “nuclear saber rattling,” referring to suggestions by Russian leaders that nuclear weapons could be used to counter threats against Moscow. The NATO chief vowed to help Ukraine deal with possible chemical and biological attacks, though he declined to offer specifics.

Stoltenberg said China’s role in the conflict will also be on the summit agenda.

“China has provided Russia with political support, including by spreading blatant lies and disinformation,” he said. “Allies are concerned that China could provide material support for the Russian invasion.”

United States warns China not to assist Russia

The Pentagon declined Wednesday to rule out additional U.S. military deployments to Eastern Europe to reassure allies. As a NATO member, the United States could feasibly fill at least some of the Eastern European deployments, but a senior U.S. defense official said he did not yet have details to share.

Thousands of U.S. troops have been deployed to Poland and other Eastern European countries on what have been termed “temporary” assignments, with no fixed end date in sight. “I think it’s safe to assume that all of us will be looking at this going forward,” the senior defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity according to ground rules set by the Pentagon. “We’re just not in a position right now to speculate.”

The official said the first wave of a substantial aid package for the Ukrainian military is on the way and should be arriving in the country “very soon.” The package, totaling $800 million authorized by the Biden administration, expands the size and scope of security assistance provided to Ukraine, including armed “kamikaze” drones that crash into targets, thousands of antitank weapons and shoulder-fired missiles that can bring down aircraft.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan, speaking to reporters traveling with the president on Air Force One, said Biden would discuss possible new restrictions on Russian oil and gas with European partners, and also would coordinate with G-7 leaders on measures intended to prevent Russia from evading sanctions. Sullivan said the United States would separately announce a new package of sanctions targeting individual Russians, including “political figures, oligarchs.”

Beth Van Schaack, Biden’s ambassador at large for global criminal justice, said the administration was continuing to gather information about possible war crimes in Ukraine and planned to share its findings with international partners and organizations. She said U.S. officials also were supporting efforts by the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office and civil society groups to document events on the ground.

As allies meet in Europe, splits emerge over how to deter Russia

“It’s incredibly important to shed a light on what’s happening within Ukraine, so that the people in Ukraine understand that the world knows what they are suffering,” she told reporters at the State Department.

Prosecutors in Poland, which borders Ukraine, have launched a probe into alleged war crimes there, and the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor has also announced an investigation. The United States is not a party to the International Criminal Court.

Brian Finucane, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group who previously served in the office of the State Department’s legal adviser, said it was too early to say where war-crimes charges were most likely to advance. He said the United States’ ability to compile evidence and help other countries do the same could prove valuable to such proceedings in the future.

“The statement itself does not move accountability forward, but it does indicate the administration is taking concrete steps to assist accountability,” Finucane said.

In Moscow, Putin responded to Western pressure with new retaliatory measures. He announced that “unfriendly countries” — including all European Union states and the United States — would now have to pay for their natural gas supplies in rubles.

Putin said the move, to be implemented within a week, could bolster the ruble by raising demand for the Russian currency. Swatting at Western companies that have severed ties with Russia, he said: “Unlike some colleagues, we value our business reputation as a reliable partner and supplier.”

Crude oil prices crept upward Wednesday as analysts anticipated a furthering tightening of energy supplies. West Texas Intermediate crude, the U.S. benchmark, jumped about 5 percent to trade near $115 per barrel. Brent crude, the international benchmark, sailed past $121.50 per barrel, up 5.4 percent.

Russia’s oil and gas exports are helping to blunt the pain of sanctions

The ruble has plummeted against major international currencies since the start of the invasion, and the Moscow stock exchange has been closed for a month. Russian officials announced the market will partially reopen Thursday for trading in Russian stocks.

Russian leaders also swatted down a proposal by Poland to send an international peacekeeping mission into Ukraine, warning that such a move could have dangerous consequences.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the idea “very reckless,” telling reporters in Moscow that a peacekeeping mission increased the risk of a contact between Russian and NATO forces, which “could have clear consequences that would be hard to repair.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also condemned the proposal, arguing it would lead to a “direct clash between Russia and NATO armed forces that everyone has not only tried to avoid but said should not take place in principle.”

Fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces has settled into a grueling slog in recent days, with invading forces appearing to lose momentum, and in some cases forced into a retreat. The Pentagon said Russia appeared to be pouring new energy into an offensive staged from the eastern Ukrainian provinces that are under separatist control — a seeming shift in strategy as the Kremlin’s assault continues to stall in other areas of the country.

Understanding the weapons involved in the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Russia enjoys a base of support in the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, where separatists have asserted a degree of independence from Kyiv that has been formally recognized by Moscow but not by the West. Elsewhere in the country, however, Russians have been met with stiff resistance as they try to claim authority over population centers — to the point where they have started to establish defensive positions outside Ukraine’s capital.

“We now assess that the Ukrainians have pushed them back further to the east and northeast of Kyiv,” a senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under terms set by the Pentagon. “That is a change from yesterday.”

The official said Russia had fired more than 1,200 missiles since the start of the invasion.

Ukrainian officials have been particularly elated over recent military successes at Makariv. But a visit there Wednesday by a team of Washington Post journalists found the town still contested. Russian forces retained control of roughly 15 percent of Makariv, after nearly three weeks of shifting battle lines, according to the town’s mayor.

There were no signs that any of the roughly 15,000 residents who have fled were returning.

As the Post journalists entered the town, Ukrainian soldiers ordered them to leave, warning them of incoming Russian Grad rockets. Minutes later, the sound of shells falling was heard, and black plumes of smoke rose over the town.

Raghavan reported from Makariv, Ukraine; Karoun Demirjian, Alex Horton, Paulina Villegas and Brittany Shammas in Washington, Emily Rauhala in Brussels, and Matt Viser, aboard Air Force One, contributed to this report.

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