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France opens war crimes probes as more countries expel Russian diplomats

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)
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French prosecutors opened three probes Tuesday into potential war crimes committed by Russian soldiers against French nationals in Ukraine — as at least six European countries joined other European nations in expelling Russian diplomats.

The moves came as pressure has increased on European governments to respond to allegations that Russian soldiers committed war crimes in Bucha, a suburb northwest of Kyiv. Ukrainian authorities and independent journalists have reported finding mass graves and streets lined with dead civilians in Bucha after Russian troops began to withdraw from the area.

Speaking by video at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky demanded that Russian leaders and soldiers be brought before a special tribunal to be tried “immediately” over the atrocities committed in Bucha.

“They killed entire families, adults and children, and they tried to burn their bodies,” Zelensky said. “This undermines the whole architecture of global security. They are destroying everything.”

Russia, which has denied killing civilians in Ukraine and claimed that the images out of Bucha are fake, criticized the expulsions and vowed to retaliate.

Which countries have expelled Russian diplomats?

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than 100 Russian diplomats in nearly a dozen countries have been asked to leave their postings — Estonia, Latvia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Italy and Denmark were the latest to announce expulsions Tuesday. In recent years, Russian diplomats have also been expelled from several Western nations in response to the Kremlin’s actions, including hacking related to the 2016 U.S. presidential election and after Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal was targeted with a nerve agent in England.

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said his country would expel 13 Russian diplomats and staff and shut two Russian consulates. Estonia said it notified Russia’s ambassador that it would shut two Russian consular outposts and expel 14 diplomats and consular staff.

Also Tuesday, E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he had decided “to designate persona non grata a number of officials of the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the EU for engaging in activities contrary to their diplomatic status.” The E.U. declared 19 members of the mission persona non-grata.

Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said that about 25 Russian diplomats and embassy staff “who represent a threat to the interests and security of our country” would be expelled from Madrid.

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said her country had “decided to deport three Russian diplomats whose work in Sweden is not in accordance with the Vienna Convention.”

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said Italy would expel 30 Russian diplomats, citing national security concerns.

And Denmark’s Foreign Ministry said 15 Russian diplomats it accused of spying would have 14 days to leave the country. Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said the move sent “a clear signal to Moscow” that Denmark would not accept “Russian intelligence officers spying on Danish soil.”

Russia promised to retaliate against Italy and Denmark, state-backed news outlets RIA Novosti and Tass said, citing Russian officials. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the expulsions as “a shortsighted step” that would narrow the possibilities for diplomacy to resolve the crisis, according to Tass.

Also on Tuesday, France’s counterterrorism prosecutor’s office said it had opened three war crimes probes concerning “acts likely to have been committed to the detriment of French nationals in Ukraine in recent weeks,” giving French courts jurisdiction.

French authorities said the incidents were believed to have occurred in Mariupol, Hostomel and Chernihiv between Feb. 24 and March 16. The presumed crimes include “deliberate attacks against civilians not taking part in hostilities,” “voluntary attacks causing psychological harm,” deliberate damage or destruction of civilian objects and property, and depriving civilians of items essential for survival.

After images of destruction emerged from Bucha last week, French President Emmanuel Macron said on Twitter that “the Russian authorities will have to answer for these crimes.”

French prosecutors had already opened an investigation last month into the death of Pierre Zakrzewski, a French-Irish cameraman with Fox News, who was killed in Ukraine on March 14.

These are the journalists killed during Russia’s war on Ukraine

After images from Bucha emerged over the weekend, France and other European countries agreed that stronger measures were needed to target Russia but disagreed about whether those measures should include a total ban on Russian oil and gas.

That debate has highlighted the role of Germany, which Poland’s prime minister has accused of being the main European Union holdout after German leaders sent mixed messages Sunday and Monday about their willingness to stop buying Russian energy. A third of Germany’s crude oil and half its coal came from Russia last year.

Still, Berlin moved Monday to take control of a subsidiary of Russian energy giant Gazprom, three days after the St. Petersburg-based company said it was abandoning business in the country.

The German Finance Ministry said Monday in a news release that Bundesnetzagentur, the federal agency that regulates the energy sector, would take control of the Gazprom Germania Group until Sept. 30.

The ministry said its decision to place Gazprom’s German subsidiary under the trusteeship of the government came “against a background of unclear legal relationships and follows the violation of the reporting obligation under the Foreign Trade and Payments Ordinance.” It said it was not clear who owns the two Russian firms moving to acquire and liquidate Gazprom Germania, calling that a national security risk.

The ministry said the company “operates critical infrastructure in Germany and is therefore of outstanding importance for the gas supply.”

Bucha massacre tests Europe’s red lines on Russian energy

Germany also moved Monday to expel 40 Russian diplomats.

Sammy Westfall, Emily Rauhala, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Ellen Francis contributed to this report.