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Outrage widens over Russian attacks Zelensky now calls a ‘genocide’

Ukrainian soldiers walk along a road littered with destroyed Russian tanks, armored vehicles and other equipment in a residential neighborhood in Bucha, Ukraine, on April 3. (Heidi Levine/for The Washington Post)
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This story contains graphic photos and video, including images of bodies found in Bucha, Ukraine.

ODESSA, Ukraine — Haunting images of dead bodies littering the streets of a Kyiv suburb and reports of civilian executions are triggering new international condemnation against Russia, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky demanded accountability for what he said amounts to “genocide.”

Ukrainian officials said they have asked the International Criminal Court to visit the mass graves seen in Bucha, a suburb northwest of the capital, so that experts can gather evidence of possible Russian war crimes. European leaders supported the call for an independent investigation and pledged to hold Russia accountable for what NATO’s secretary general described as “brutality against civilians we haven’t seen in Europe for decades.”

The calls for retribution came as Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to be regrouping and shifting his focus away from Kyiv, near where Ukrainian forces are recapturing territory, and toward the country’s south and east.

Explosions rocked Odessa early Sunday as Russia said its missiles struck an oil refinery and fuel storage facilities — the first major strikes on the strategic Black Sea port city’s downtown. Tens of thousands of people remained cut off from desperately needed aid in Mariupol, which the Red Cross still hasn’t been able to reach.

Zelensky said Ukrainians are being “destroyed and exterminated” because they refuse to be subdued by Russian forces.

“This is genocide,” Zelensky said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We are the citizens of Ukraine. We have more than 100 nationalities. This is about the destruction and extermination of all these nationalities.”

Video posted to social media Saturday and verified by The Washington Post showed at least nine people, including one child, lying on the street of a residential area in Bucha. They appeared to be dead.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement Sunday that it had “documented several cases of Russian military forces committing laws-of-war violations against civilians in occupied areas of the Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv regions of Ukraine.”

Footage taken on April 3 shows mass graves and bodies of civilians lying in the streets of Bucha, a city in Ukraine near Kyiv. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

A Ukrainian task force has found 410 civilian bodies in the Kyiv region, Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said Sunday.

Responding to the images from Bucha, at least three top European officials — European Council President Charles Michel, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and the European Union’s economic commissioner, Paolo Gentiloni — said they planned to impose tighter economic sanctions against Russia.

The scene in Bucha as seen by a Post photographer

A fundamental problem, however, remains the billions of dollars’ worth of Russian oil and gas that the world continues to buy, giving the Kremlin a direct financial lifeline.

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said the European Union should discuss banning Russian gas imports, according to her ministry.

Germany has thus far opposed calls to ban Russian energy supplies, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz saying it would devastate the German and European economies.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed to do “everything in my power to starve Putin’s war machine.” He added that the United Kingdom would ramp up sanctions against Russia and bolster military support for Ukraine.

In a message posted on the Telegram app late Sunday, Zelensky asked for help in investigating and punishing the Russian forces he accused of committing atrocities against unarmed civilians in Bucha and other Ukrainian cities

Zelensky also directed remarks toward mothers of Russian soldiers he accused of executing civilians.

“What did the Ukrainian city of Bucha ever do to Russia?” he said in Russian. “You couldn’t have not known that was inside your children.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on April 3, following the discovery of mass graves in Bucha, pledged that his government would investigate “every crime.” (Video: Telegram)

The latest brutalities have prompted Biden administration officials to discuss intensifying their sanctions campaign against Russia, according to two people familiar with the matter.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” said the images of dead civilians were a “punch to the gut.”

The Russian Defense Ministry, however, claimed no civilians were harmed while it had control of Bucha. It said, without offering evidence, that Ukrainian troops had fired in the area.

The images from Bucha “are another production of the Kyiv regime for the Western media,” the statement said. It claimed the same of an attack on a maternity hospital in Mariupol last month, which also drew widespread condemnation.

Amid the condemnation, Russia requested a Monday meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss what Moscow’s U.N. representative, Dmitry Polyanskiy, called a “blatant provocation by Ukrainian radicals,” according to RIA, a Russian state-owned news agency.

Negotiations between Russia and Ukraine were set to resume Monday, with discussions centered on Russia’s demands for Ukraine to cede Crimea and parts of the Donbas regions in the east.

Zelensky said Sunday that peace talks would require full Russian withdrawal “to their borders that existed prior to the 24th of February at least” — a statement some are interpreting as a willingness to compromise on the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine that Russia contested before the invasion.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, though Ukraine still claims the southern peninsula as its own. The Kremlin has also backed separatists in two provinces of the Donbas region, which Putin recognized as independent before his invasion.

On Sunday, Russian chief negotiator Vladimir Medinsky said on Telegram that the Ukrainian side had “become more realistic” in some of its stances. However, he appeared to shut down the idea of a possible meeting between Putin and Zelensky, a day after his Ukrainian counterpart said such a sit-down between the leaders was possible.

“The draft agreement is not ready for submission to a meeting at the top,” Medinsky said on Telegram, according to a Reuters translation. “I repeat again and again: Russia’s position on Crimea and Donbas remains UNCHANGED.”

Moscow and Kyiv have held a number of negotiations, most recently in Istanbul, since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

As Russia’s attacks appeared to shift south, the conflict in cities on the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea are coming into focus. Military analysts think the next phase of the war will primarily be a battle for southeastern Ukraine.

In eastern Ukraine, a brutal fight rages

Odessa has long been considered a target for the Russian military because it is an economically vital port, but with Moscow’s ground forces unable to advance past Mykolaiv, about 70 miles east, Odessa has largely been spared from attacks. Local businesses and even the zoo have reopened in the past week.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said Sunday that Russia’s navy is strategically blockading the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov to prevent Ukraine from rearming.

In another battered port city, Mariupol, Ukrainians will also face “difficult” fights ahead, an adviser to Zelensky warned, as Moscow vies for a strategic victory that would free up thousands of troops to fight elsewhere.

Russia’s Defense Ministry reported that high-precision sea and air missiles had destroyed an oil refinery and three fuel storage facilities near Odessa. The claim could not be immediately verified independently by The Post.

Ukrainian officials said the fire had been extinguished, but the depot had been destroyed and could “no longer function” following Sunday’s attack.

The Odessa City Council said in a statement posted on Telegram early Sunday that the city was attacked from the air and that “some missiles were shot down by air defense.” Fires were reported in some areas, and residents were advised to close their windows and stay away while emergency responders carried out their work.

After the Odessa explosions, missile strikes were recorded in two other cities in Ukraine on Sunday, local authorities said. Missile strikes were reported in the southern port city of Mykolaiv, where a Russian rocket had hit the regional administration building on Tuesday, killing at least 36 people, according to the local authorities.

“Friends, we have several missile strikes in the city,” Alexander Senkevych, the city’s mayor, wrote in a Telegram post. He noted that information is being collected and asked the public not to publish photos or videos and let official sources do so.

A Russian missile strike also was reported in the city of Vasylkiv, southwest of Kyiv, where an air defense command center was hit.

“Today, the enemy once again launched a missile strike on the city of Vasylkiv,” a unit of the Ukrainian air force reported in a post published on Facebook, noting that some of the missiles were shot down by Ukraine’s air defense systems.

According to preliminary information, several employees of the command center — which also houses a training center and an aviation school — were injured and hospitalized, one in critical condition, according to the statement. Rescue services were going through the debris in search of survivors.

To the east, in Mariupol, where Russia has already wreaked massive destruction and deprivation, a much-needed humanitarian convoy is “yet to reach the city,” the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Sunday.

The ICRC team of three cars and nine staffers departed Zaporizhzhia — about 140 miles from Mariupol — on Saturday morning to assist with the humanitarian operation in the battered port city, where as many as 100,000 people are still trapped after weeks of heavy fighting.

The convoy attempted to reach Mariupol on Friday but had to return to Zaporizhzhia, saying the “conditions and arrangements” made it impossible to move forward, despite assurances from Moscow of a cease-fire and safe passage for civilians, the organization said in a statement.

Thousands of desperate civilians left the eastern Ukraine city of Kramatorsk on Sunday, before an anticipated Russian offensive to seize what remains of Ukrainian-controlled territory in the eastern Donbas region.

About 5,000 people — mostly women, children and the elderly — boarded trains heading to the relative safety of western Ukraine. The mood was solemn as families said goodbye to loved ones, unsure when or whether they would see them again.

“Everything changed over the past three days; more and more families are leaving,” said Julia Jiakovlea, 34, who decided to leave Saturday evening.

The Ukrainian government has for weeks been urging the White House to expand its sanctions campaign to more dramatically cut Russia off from the global economy.

Ukraine has pressed the administration to curb Russian vessels’ access to international waterways, choke off its energy exports, and sanctions far more government officials and allies of Putin. Europe continues to depend on Russian energy, and cutting off that vital financial lifeline could devastate the European economies.

But it is not clear which escalatory measures would be proportional to the gruesome scenes emerging in Ukraine. Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar at Columbia University, said it has been long understood that human rights violations would trigger more sanctions. But he pointed out that Russian military tactics do not appear driven by U.S. sanctions, and it would be hard to design new measures commensurate with the damage done.

“The real problem they’re going to have with the sanctions response is it will be seen as insufficient pretty much no matter what you do. The humanitarian atrocity committed will always be much worse than a sanctions response,” Nephew said. “There’s nothing proportional to a massacre being committed.”

The details of the retaliatory steps being considered by the United States aren’t clear, but senior Biden officials have previously discussed potentially devastating “secondary sanctions” that would target countries that continue to trade with Russia. Officials stressed that planning was preliminary and that no decisions had been made about potential responses.

The Biden administration could also impose sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy that they have not hit so far, including mining, transportation and additional parts of the Russian financial sector.

Blinken told CNN that the United States and its European partners are discussing new sanctions to impose on Russia “every single day.” Blinken stressed that the measures so far are already projected to cause Russia’s economy to decline by 10 percent this year, but condemned Russia’s “brutality” and said more measures are likely necessary.

“These sanctions are having a big bite now. They’re going to have a big bite going forward as long as this lasts, and we are every single day making sure that they’re not only tightened, but increased,” Blinken said.

A Treasury spokeswoman declined to comment. State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “We’ll continue to escalate the pressure until and unless the Kremlin relents, but we’re not going to preview specific sanctions.”

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton said Russia should be isolated from international organizations and urged the Group of 20 to bar Russian officials from its summit later this year, calling it necessary punishment for the invasion of Ukraine.

“I think there is an upcoming G-20 event later in the year — I would not permit Russia to attend,” Clinton said on NBC News’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “And if they insisted on literally showing up, I would hope there would be a significant, if not total, boycott. The only way that we’re going to end the bloodshed and the terror that we’re seeing unleashed in Ukraine and protect Europe and democracy is to do everything we can to impose even greater costs on Putin.

Khurshudyan reported from Odessa, Ukraine, MacMillan and Stein from Washington, and Timsit from London. David L. Stern in Mukachevo, Ukraine; Dalton Bennett in Dnipro, Ukraine; Isaac Stanley-Becker in Berlin; Rachel Pannett in Sydney; Jennifer Hassan and Annabelle Chapman in London; and Paulina Villegas, John Hudson and Amy B Wang in Washington contributed to this report.

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