Zelensky says he cannot tolerate indecisiveness on sanctions, as US, allies prepare new measures

Ludmyla Verginska (left) and Serhii Lahovskyi mourn their common friend Ihor Lytvynenko at his burial in Bucha on April 5, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

LVIV (AFP, REUTERS) - Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky said he could not tolerate any indecisiveness from Western countries on imposing new sanctions on Russia, in an address to Ireland’s parliament on Wednesday (April 6).

“When we are hearing new rhetoric about sanctions... I can’t tolerate any indecisiveness after everything that Russian troops have done,” he told a rare joint sitting of both houses of parliament by video link, calling on Ireland to convince its EU partners to introduce more rigid sanctions.

Speaking via an interpreter, Zelensky said Ukraine civilian infrastructure, including a fuel depot, were hit by Russian missiles overnight and accused Moscow of deliberately provoking a food crisis by using hunger as a “weapon”.

Russia has denied targeting civilians in what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

The US and its allies are preparin new sanctions on Moscow over civilian killings in northern Ukraine. Mr Zelensky has described the killings as "war crimes" demanding commensurate punishment.

Western sanctions on Russia over its nearly six-week invasion of its neighbour gained new impetus this week after dead civilians shot at close range were discovered in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, seized back from Russian forces.

Russia denied targeting civilians in Bucha and described evidence presented as a "monstrous forgery" staged by the West to discredit it.

New sanctions set to be unveiled on Wednesday are in part a response to Bucha, the White House said.

The measures, coordinated between Washington, Group of Seven advanced economies and the European Union, will target Russian banks and officials and ban new investment in Russia, the White House said.

Proposed EU sanctions, which the bloc's 27 member states must approve, would ban buying Russian coal and prevent Russian ships from entering EU ports.

EU executive Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc was working on banning oil imports, as well. Europe, which obtains about a third of its natural gas from Russia, has been wary of the economic impact a total ban on Russian energy would bring.

But signalling strengthening EU resolve, Germany's foreign minister said the coal ban was the first step towards an embargo on all Russian fossil fuel imports. Ukraine says banning Russian gas is vital to securing a deal to end the war in peace talks.

The EU must impose oil and gas sanctions on Russia “sooner or later”, European Council chief Charles Michel told members of the European Parliament in the French city of Strasbourg on Wednesday.

The deaths of civilians in Bucha and other parts of Ukraine were “war crimes” and “yet more proof that Russian brutality against the people of Ukraine has no limits,” he said.

“We the EU, we will not turn our backs. We will look reality straight in the eye. There must be, and there will be, severe consequences for all those responsible,” he said.

The European Commission's von der Leyen echoed that, saying: “We will hold accountable those who are responsible for war crimes. The perpetrators must pay after Bucha more than ever.” She said the EU intended to keep ramping up “smart” sanctions that would hurt Russia more than the European Union.

The latest package of measures, she said, “will not be our last sanctions”.

Ukraine’s foreign minister welcomed the new EU sanctions but said an embargo on Russian gas and oil was needed “to stop” President Vladimir Putin.

“I appreciate the strengthening of the 5th EU sanctions package: bans on Russian coal, vessels accessing EU ports, and road transport operators,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter. “But it will take a gas/oil embargo and de-SWIFTing of all Russian banks to stop Putin. Difficult times require difficult decisions.”

After an impassioned address to the UN Security Council on Tuesday, Mr Zelensky said new sanctions "against Russia must be commensurate with the gravity of the occupiers' war crimes," calling it a "crucial moment" for Western leaders.

"If after that Russian banks function as usual, if after that the transit of goods to Russia continues as usual, if after that EU countries pay Russia for energy as usual, then the political fate of some leaders will not develop as usual," he said a video statement.

New Zealand said on Wednesday it would impose a 35 per cent tariff on all imports from Russia and extend export bans on industrial products connected to strategic Russian industries.

"The images and reports emerging of atrocities committed against civilians in Bucha and other regions of Ukraine is abhorrent and reprehensible, and New Zealand continues to respond to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin's mindless acts of aggression," Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said in a statement.

Shifting battles

Since launching its invasion on Feb 24, Russia has failed to capture a single major city in what it calls a "special military operation" aimed at demilitarising and "denazifying" Ukraine.

The Kremlin's position is rejected by Ukraine, a parliamentary democracy, and the West as a pretext for an unprovoked invasion that has uprooted a quarter of the country's population.

Russia's forces mostly withdrew from near Kyiv last week after getting bogged down by Ukrainian resistance. Russia has now shifted its offensive towards Ukraine's south and east.

The United States has agreed to provide an additional US$100 million (S$136 million) in assistance to Ukraine, including Javelin anti-armour systems, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

In the besieged southern port of Mariupol, where tens of thousands are trapped with scant access to food or water, a Dominica-flagged cargo ship sank on Tuesday after being targeted by Russian missile strikes, the vessel's flag registry said.

Russia did not respond to a request for comment. Its armed forces said on Tuesday they had shot down two Ukrainian military transport helicopters that were trying to leave the city.

Ukraine's armed forces general staff said attacks in Mariupol were continuing, but did not give any details.

In the east, where Ukraine's second-largest city of Kharkiv has been among Russia's main targets, the general staff said Ukrainian forces had destroyed three Russian tanks and around 20 other armoured vehicles.

Bucha burial

Ukrainian officials say between 150 and 300 bodies might be in a mass grave by a church in Bucha, north of the capital Kyiv.

Satellite images taken weeks ago show bodies of civilians on a street in the town, a private US company said, undercutting Russia's claims that Ukrainian forces caused the deaths or that the scene was staged.

Reuters reporters saw at least four victims shot through the head in Bucha, one with their hands tied behind their back.

Residents have recounted cases of several others slain, some shot through their eyes and one apparently beaten to death and mutilated.

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On Tuesday, Ukrainian Serhii Lahovskyi buried the corpse of a childhood friend who had been shot through the mouth at very close range after disappearing when Russian troops occupied the town.

Lahovskyi and others grabbed shovels and dug a shallow grave on a grass verge. They used a carpet to carry the remains, placing him in a ditch before covering him with wooden boards and shovelling earth on top.

"Why did these animals shoot him so?" Lahovskyi said, sobbing. "This is not Russia, this is a monster."

Reuters could not independently verify the details of Lahovskyi's account or who was responsible for the killings in Bucha.

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