Horrors of Bucha drive Europe towards adding sanctions on Russia

Destruction in Bucha, Ukraine, on April 3, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG) - The European Union has condemned Russia for atrocities by its military in several Ukrainian towns, saying that the bloc will work "as a matter of urgency" on additional sanctions against Moscow.

In a statement on behalf of the 27-nation bloc, Mr Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief foreign envoy, laid the blame for the "haunting images of large numbers of civilian casualties" at the feet of the occupying Russian forces, and said the EU will work on further sanctions "as a matter of urgency".  

Russia’s Defence Ministry called the pictures of the dead lying in the streets of newly liberated towns a "provocation" by Ukraine. Russia is seeking a United Nations Security Council meeting on Monday to air its grievances.

"The Russian authorities are responsible for these atrocities, committed while they had effective control of the area," Mr Borrell said on Monday (April 4), adding that Brussels will assist Ukraine in collecting and preserving evidence of war crimes.

"The massacres in the town of Bucha and other Ukrainian towns will be inscribed in the list of atrocities committed on European soil.

"They are subject to the international law of occupation."

The world reacted with horror and outrage to the apparent war crimes in towns surrounding Kyiv that were among the first targets of the invading Russian forces.

However, it’s unclear whether fresh revelations of atrocities will prove to be a turning point in the international response to the near six-week-old war.   

Some EU governments are pushing for the bloc to quickly impose new sanctions in response to multiple reports that Russian troops executed unarmed civilians in northern Ukraine.

New EU sanctions will be discussed over the next few days, according to French President Emmanuel Macron, who called for "very clear measures".

"I am in favour of a round of sanctions, particularly on coal and oil, which we know are particularly harmful," Mr Macron said in a radio interview, adding that France will coordinate with European partners, especially Germany, on additional measures. "We must convey a sign that it is our values and our common dignity that we’re defending."

The European Commission, the EU’s executive, has been coordinating with member states to hone measures that would mostly focus on closing loopholes, strengthening existing actions – such as export controls on more technology goods and fully sanctioning banks already cut off from the Swift global payments system - and expanding the list of sanctioned individuals with dozens more people.

That set of actions is expected to be put forward as early as Wednesday.But in light of reports that Russian troops executed unarmed civilians, some governments argue that the measures don’t go far enough and want the bloc to discuss a new and stronger package of sanctions, including targeting Russia’s energy sector, as soon as possible.

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Polish Premier Mateusz Morawiecki proposed an EU ban on visas to Russian citizens during a press conference in Warsaw, calling the move "indispensable". 

He has urged an emergency EU summit to discuss the events in Bucha, saying the bloc should sever all trade ties with Russia without delay. Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said a fifth around of "strong EU sanctions" should come as soon as possible.

But several countries, including Germany, have up to now blocked more significant steps, such as embargoing Russian oil. EU sanctions require unanimous support. 

But there were indications that the mood may be shifting in Berlin. In a statement to reporters in Berlin on Sunday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Germany and its allies will agree "further measures" against Russia in coming days, without providing details. "Putin and his supporters will feel the effects and we will continue to make weapons available to Ukraine so it can defend itself against the Russian invasion," Mr Scholz said. He didn’t mention the Russian imports of gas, oil and coal that Germany heavily relies on.

Still, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, a member of Mr Scholz's Social Democrats, said on ARD television that the EU should discuss a ban on Russian natural gas imports.

"The EU will continue to firmly support Ukraine and will advance, as a matter of urgency, work on further sanctions against Russia," the bloc said.

Some governments say the reported atrocities in places like Bucha, a town on the outskirts of Kyiv, are enough to warrant tough new sanctions.

But others have argued that measures like cutting off Russian oil or banning Russian ships from European ports should only be explored if Russia were to use chemical weapons or capture a major city, three diplomats said, asking not to be identified as the discussions are private.

Ukraine has accused Russian soldiers of killing unarmed civilians, with officials saying they found hundreds of bodies in Bucha after Russian troops left.

Mr Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, posted several photos on Twitter of dead people, some with their hands tied behind their backs.

President Zelensky renewed charges that Russia is committing genocide in Ukraine, telling CBS his citizens "are being destroyed and exterminated".

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the claims of war crimes as staged.

"It’s clear to the naked eye that there are a lot of fakes and staged shots," he said by text message when asked to comment on images released by Ukrainian officials.

A mass grave behind a church in Bucha on April 3, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Russia's chief investigator on Monday ordered an official examination of what he called a Ukrainian "provocation" in response to Kyiv accusing the Russian military of massacring civilians in the town of Bucha.

Mr Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Russian Investigative Committee, ordered that a probe be opened on the basis that Ukraine had spread "deliberately false information" about Russian armed forces in Bucha, the committee said in a statement.

The EU fully supports the International Criminal Court’s investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity, and is helping Ukraine with efforts to document evidence, said Mr Borrell. 

"The perpetrators of war crimes and other serious violations as well as the responsible government officials and military leaders will be held accountable," he said.

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