Russian leader Vladimir Putin faced mounting global condemnation Monday, with President Biden and a growing number of world leaders calling for a war-crimes trial, following the discovery in Ukraine of mass graves and streets littered with the bodies of civilians around the suburbs of Kyiv.
“This guy is brutal, and what’s happening in Bucha is outrageous,” Biden told reporters, referring to a town near Kyiv where numerous civilians were found dead, some bearing marks of torture or execution. The Ukrainian government said it has counted more than 400 civilian deaths so far in the suburbs of the capital city.
Biden previously branded Putin a “war criminal” in remarks March 17, but at that time the White House said he was speaking personally and not outlining a formal U.S. position. Six days later, the U.S. formally accused Russia of war crimes and said it was collecting evidence to help prove it.
“He is a war criminal,” Biden said of Putin on Monday. “But we have to gather information, we have to continue to provide Ukraine with the weapons they need to continue to fight.”
As Russian forces pulled back from the suburbs of Kyiv and the northeastern city of Chernihiv, they continued to strike the southern coastal cities of Mykolaiv and Odesa with rocket fire while they shifted their offensive operations to Ukraine’s east.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the charred rubble in Bucha Monday as armed guards surrounded him. The president called on the media to come to the city to “show the world what happened here.”
Zelensky has described the scenes in Bucha, where photos and videos show mass graves and dead men and women face down on residential roads, as evidence of Russian “genocide” against Ukrainians.
“Ordinary residents of an ordinary city near Kyiv,” Zelensky said later in an address to Romanian parliament. “Their hands were tied behind their backs, they were shot in the back of the head or in the eye, killed just in the streets. Civilian vehicles were crushed by military equipment. Vehicles with people! They raped women and girls.”
Zelensky also warned that the most brutal images from newly liberated areas, such as Bucha, were still to come.
“Not all evidence has been collected yet,” he said. “Not all burials have been discovered yet. Not all basements where the Russian military tortured people have been inspected yet.”
He pledged to set up a special judicial mechanism, with the participation of international prosecutors and judges, to investigate alleged war atrocities. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Monday that she had spoken with Zelensky and the European Union had set up a joint investigation team to work with the Ukrainian government to “investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
“The perpetrators of these heinous crimes must not go unpunished,” she said in a statement.
Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians in Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday dismissed the scenes outside Kyiv as a “stage-managed anti-Russian provocation,” saying that Bucha’s mayor had not spoken of atrocities immediately after Russian troops left the area last week.
The horrific scenes have generated calls for tougher sanctions on Moscow over the war, which is in its 40th day.
“We will do everything to ensure that those who have perpetrated these war crimes do not go unpunished,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Monday, citing “alleged cases of [crimes against] humanity, war crimes and — why not say it too — genocide.”
Germany and France on Monday expelled dozens of Russian diplomats. French President Emmanuel Macron described the gruesome images as “unbearable.” Macron, who said he supported additional sanctions, such as banning imports of Russian oil and coal into the European Union, said it was “very clear” that Russia committed war crimes.
And a top government official in Germany, a primary importer of Russian gas and one of the strongest holdouts against cutting off such trade, signaled Sunday that it might change course and support a ban. “There has to be a response,” Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said. “Such crimes must not remain unanswered.”
More than half of Germany’s gas comes from Russia. Europe overall receives 40% of its gas and 25% of its oil from Russia.
The Biden administration said Monday that it will try to get Russia kicked off the main human rights body of the United Nations.
“Russia’s participation on the Human Rights Council is a farce,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said at a news conference in Bucharest, Romania. “We cannot let a member state that is subverting every principle we hold dear to continue to sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council.”
The 47-nation Human Rights Council, based in Geneva, has been criticized in the past for including countries with questionable human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia and Cuba. The Trump administration pulled the United States from the group, but U.S. membership was restored this year.
Removing a member requires a two-thirds vote in the full 193-nation U.N. General Assembly. It has been done only once: Libya was suspended in 2011 during the chaos surrounding the overthrow of dictator Moammar Kadafi.
State Department spokesman Ned Price acknowledged that removal is a “rare” and “extraordinary” action but that the administration believes the atrocities reported in Ukraine have outraged a sufficient number of nations to join the vote against Russia.
At a White House briefing, Jake Sullivan, U.S. national security advisor, said Russia appeared to be “revising its war aims” and scaling back its initial goal of toppling Zelensky and conquering the entire country.
Russian forces were “retreating” from Kyiv and “repositioning” to concentrate on taking over already contested regions in eastern and southern Ukraine, Sullivan said, where they would probably “seek to surround and overwhelm Ukrainian forces.” Meanwhile, he said, the administration expects Moscow to continue its aerial assault on Kyiv and other major cities to cause “damage” and “terror.”
“Russia’s goal in the end is to weaken Ukraine as much as possible,” he said, warning that the conflict is shifting into what will probably be a “protracted” phase with fighting continuing for months to come.
Analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said in a Monday report that Russian forces pulled out from the Kyiv area are “highly unlikely to be effectively deployed elsewhere in Ukraine and are likely a spent force.” Russia’s success, the report said, would probably depend on its ability to capture the eastern city of Slovyansk.
“Efforts by Russian forces advancing from Izyum to capture Slovyansk and threaten Ukrainian forces in Donbas with encirclement will likely prove to be the next pivotal battle of the war in Ukraine,” the report said. “If Russian forces are unable to take Slovyansk, Russia’s campaign to capture the entirety of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts will likely fail.”
The U.S. and NATO allies are planning to impose additional economic sanctions on Russia this week, Sullivan said, adding that he expected “additional new [defense] capabilities beyond what’s already been sent to Ukraine” to be delivered in the near future.
Pressed on why the administration rejected Zelensky’s characterization of the Bucha atrocities as a genocide, Sullivan said: “We have not yet seen a level of systematic deprivation of life of the Ukrainian people to rise to the level of genocide.”
Although they were unable to enter central Kyiv, Russia said its forces had successfully completed the “first phase” of the war against Ukraine and were shifting east to the industrial Donbas region and other areas that are home to pro-Russia separatist movements.
Russian troops appeared to have left several towns around the northeastern city of Chernihiv by Monday, according to regional Gov. Viacheslav Chaus.
Chaus, who said that about 70% of the city is destroyed, warned remaining residents not to get too comfortable. In a message posted to the Telegram app, he counseled patience as Ukrainian troops clear mines.
“We must avoid new victims,” he said.
Major aid routes into the city have been cut off for weeks, but Ukrainian news outlet RBK Ukraina reported a positive development: The 92-mile car route between Kyiv and Chernihiv had been partially reopened Monday morning.
Farther east in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, the local prosecutor’s office said Monday that shelling of residential buildings Sunday left seven people dead and 34 injured.
In Mariupol, a battered southern port city that has seen some of the worst publicly documented atrocities of the war, officials have continued to struggle to evacuate residents and send in aid.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Monday that a convoy of seven buses bound for Mariupol had been blocked in the Russian-held city of Manhush. Efforts to bring aid and evacuate residents have repeatedly fallen apart, with Ukraine accusing Russian forces of failing to honor the pledge to allow safe corridors out of Mariupol.
New strikes were reported overnight on the historic Black Sea port of Odesa and the city of Mykolaiv, both in the south. The mayor of Mykolaiv, Oleksandr Senkevich, said late Monday on a Facebook broadcast that the Russian bombardment left many people dead or injured. Russian troops, he said, struck numerous buildings, including houses, hospitals and schools.
The shifting terrain of war has left western parts of Ukraine in relative peace as local recovery efforts began even as war rages in the south and east.
The British Ministry of Defense warned Monday that Russian fighters were in a “consolidate and reorganize” phase as they planned more offensives in the Donbas. The ministry said fighters from Wagner, a Russian paramilitary company, were staging in the area.
At the same time, the Ukrainian military said in a Monday report that a “hidden mobilization” was underway by Russians to regroup amid their pullback from some parts of Ukraine.
“The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation plan to engage around 60,000 people during the mobilization,” the report said.
According to the United Nations, at least 1,417 civilians have been killed since Russia launched the war Feb. 24. About a quarter of Ukraine’s population of 44 million has been displaced, with more than 4 million fleeing the country.
McDonnell reported from Lviv, Kaleem from London and Jarvie from Atlanta. Tracy Wilkinson and Eli Stokols contributed to this report from Washington.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.