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Biden says Bucha killings a ‘war crime,’ seeks new Russia sanctions

Killings in Kyiv suburb will be ‘front and center’ at U.N. Security Council meeting, British official says

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits the site of a recent battle in Bucha on April 4. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)
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President Biden on Monday joined the chorus of world leaders who have said reports of mass killings in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha constituted a “war crime,” vowing to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin “accountable” for the apparent atrocities in Ukraine.

The president’s remarks bolstered the global furor over gruesome images from Bucha that showed mass graves and bodies strewn in the streets — some with hands tied behind their backs, several with gunshot wounds in the head — following the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region.

The Kremlin dismissed the allegations as Ukrainian subterfuge, while Russia’s military continued bombarding Ukraine’s southern coastline — moves in line with U.S. intelligence assessments that Putin is focusing offensive operations on the south and east rather than the entire country, in a new phase of the war likely to play out over months or longer.

The International Criminal Court said on Feb. 28 it is investigating possible war crimes in Ukraine. Experts tell The Post how the legal process works. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

The prospect of a protracted war of attrition has revived questions about which country could hold on longer: Ukraine, suffering under relentless artillery barrages and food shortages, or Russia, facing military setbacks and crippling economic sanctions.

In his remarks to reporters at the Fort McNair Army base in Washington, Biden promised to impose additional sanctions on Moscow, while his aides announced support for a multinational team of prosecutors that would visit the region to collect evidence of atrocities — a process that officials cautioned would take time.

“The images we have seen and reports we have heard suggest these atrocities are not the act of a rogue soldier,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said. “They are part of a broader troubling campaign.”

The scene inside Bucha, as seen by a Washington Post photographer

Other sanctions efforts continued apace on Monday with U.S. and Spanish authorities seizing a 255-foot superyacht owned by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg as part of a wider drive to punish the financial elite close to Putin.

The United States also plans to push for the suspension of Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Monday. The suspension would require a two-thirds majority vote by the 193-member General Assembly, and is a move reserved for countries that persistently commit systematic violations of human rights.

British U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward, whose country holds the presidency of the council, said the killings in Bucha “will be absolutely front and center.” She noted that 141 member nations have voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is well above the threshold.

“We want to keep the pressure on Russia,” Woodward said, “so that we can support all of the work that’s going on to see Russia leave Ukraine.”

Even as leading European countries were united in their outrage over the apparent atrocities, the continent was split over how to punish Moscow, especially given its critical energy exports.

France and Germany expelled scores of Russian diplomats on Monday over the horrific images, and Paris said it would back an embargo on Russian oil and coal in proposals that the European Union is slated to take up on Wednesday. The results remain far from clear, however, with politicians nervous about how the public will react to rising energy costs.

Proponents of tougher sanctions say they fear that without them, the Kremlin might be willing to carry out a longer battle to pummel Ukraine’s leaders into submission.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the images from Bucha “are evidence of incredible brutality on the part of the Russian leadership and those who follow its propaganda.” But German leaders also made clear that they are unlikely to back an energy embargo.

That prompted criticism from Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who blamed Berlin for standing in the way of starving Russia’s war machine. “It’s Germany that is the main roadblock on sanctions,” Morawiecki said.

Ukrainian villagers describe cruel, violent campaign by Russian troops

In Moscow, Russian officials denied any Russian involvement in the killings in Bucha and dismissed images of bodies as fraudulent. Russian officials sought a meeting at the U.N. Security Council on Monday to rebut allegations that its troops committed a mass assault on civilians. But the request was rejected, with Woodward saying back-to-back meetings were not needed.

“The other day, another fake attack was launched in the city of Bucha,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in televised remarks. “After the Russian military personnel left from there in accordance with plans and agreements, a few days later they staged this fake, which is being dispersed through all channels and social networks by Ukrainian representatives and their Western patrons.”

Konstantin Kosachev, deputy speaker of the upper house of Russia’s parliament, said there was “no doubt whatsoever that it was staged.”

However, the satellite company Maxar Technologies said its images document a mass grave in Bucha, seeming to reinforce claims by Bucha’s mayor that 270 residents are buried in such graves.

Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, said the uproar over the apparent atrocities could upend negotiations between Russia and Ukraine aimed at a cease-fire and a potential peace deal.

“This is unprecedented and this will not facilitate or encourage or be helpful to what is happening between Russia and Ukraine,” he said.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called Russia’s actions a “genocide” against the Ukrainian people — a phrasing echoed by the Polish prime minister on Monday.

Asked if he would use the same word, Biden said, “No, I think it is a war crime.”

Speaking of Putin, Biden said, “This guy is brutal,” and added that “what’s happening in Bucha is outrageous, and everyone’s seen it.”

The president’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, expanded on the terminology being used during a discussion with reporters. “We have seen atrocities. We have seen war crimes. We have not yet seen a level of systematic deprivation of life of the Ukrainian people to rise to the level of genocide,” he said. “But again, that’s something we will continue to monitor.”

Regardless of the semantics, the humanitarian situation in parts of Ukraine continued to worsen.

In the devastated port city of Mariupol, as many as 130,000 people remain trapped under a Russian siege where 90 percent of the infrastructure has been destroyed, Mayor Vadym Boychenko said.

“There is quite a lot of people still remaining in the absolutely sieged city of Mariupol in some inhumane conditions,” he said during a video briefing. “There is no water supply, no electricity, no heating, no communications, no medicine.”

A team from the International Committee of the Red Cross that was attempting to enter Mariupol to help evacuate civilians was stopped and is now being detained in nearby Manhush, the organization said Monday.

In the southern Mykolaiv region, part of Ukraine’s embattled southern front line, Gov. Vitaliy Kim said Russian projectiles have hit more than 2,000 buildings — including homes, hospitals and other health facilities. The strikes have killed at least 161 people, including six children, Kim said, adding that at least 85 towns and villages were without electricity. His figures could not be independently verified.

More than 1,200 Ukrainians have been confirmed killed since Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. And the International Criminal Court launched an investigation last month into possible Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

Maps of Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Officials in northern Ukraine continued to report Monday that Russian forces have withdrawn. The governor of the Zhytomyr region said Russian forces had left his area. The Sumy regional governor said the same. The Ukrainian military said over the weekend that some villages in the Chernihiv region were cleared.

But in Kharkiv — Ukraine’s second-largest city, in the northeast and about 30 miles from the border with Russia — missiles and other artillery have turned the city of 1.4 million into a shadow of itself, officials said. A spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Russian forces continue to shell the city and may be preparing a renewed offensive.

Western officials, too, said Russia appeared to be repositioning its troops for a major assault in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

“We assess Russia will focus on defeating Ukrainian forces in the broader Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, which encompasses significantly more territory than Russian proxies already controlled before the new invasion began in late February,” Sullivan said. “Russia could then use any tactical successes it achieves to propagate a narrative of progress.”

Stern reported from Mukachevo, Ukraine. Jeanne Whalen in Riga, Latvia; Annabel Timsit in London; and Alex Horton, Hannah Knowles and Felicia Sonmez in Washington contributed to this report.