By Ken Bredemeier
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sharply condemned Russia on Sunday, accusing it of committing war atrocities in Ukraine as the world saw its first glimpse of the bodies of dead Ukrainians left behind like trash in the streets of the Kyiv suburb of Bucha after Russian troops departed the area.
“You can’t help but feel a punch to the gut,” the top U.S. diplomat told CNN’s “State of the Union” show. “We cannot become numb to this. We cannot normalize this.”
Blinken said the United States would be “looking hard to document” Russian war crimes throughout Ukraine even as Ukraine is claiming it has retaken control of the north-central region around the capital. Moscow’s troops have pulled back from the Kyiv territory to concentrate new attacks in southern Ukrainian cities along the Black Sea and in the contested Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
Reflecting on the bodies found in the streets, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told CBS’s “Face the Nation” show, “Indeed. This is genocide.” He said Ukraine is being “destroyed and exterminated” by Russian forces.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN, “It is a brutality against citizens we have not seen in decades” in Europe. “It is [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin’s responsibility to end the war.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Twitter, “I am deeply shocked by the images of civilians killed in Bucha, Ukraine. It is essential that an independent investigation leads to effective accountability.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry contended in a statement Sunday that it had not killed civilians in Bucha and claimed that video footage and photographs showing the dead were “yet another provocation” by the West.
Both Blinken and Stoltenberg voiced skepticism about the immediate implications of the Russian military pullback from fighting near Kyiv, which Moscow once appeared to think might be captured within days of launching its Feb. 24 invasion of eastern Ukraine and aerial bombardment of numerous targets.
“They could be regrouping and then coming back to Kyiv,” Blinken said, but added that the resistance of the Ukrainian fighters over the last five-plus weeks has shown that “the will of the Ukrainian people will not be subjected to occupation” by Russia.
Stoltenberg said, “This is not a real withdrawal but a shift in strategy to the east and south.”
Blinken said Western economic sanctions are taking a toll on Russia and predicted its economy would shrink 10% this year compared to a projected 3% year-over-year U.S. advance. He said the U.S. and its allies are looking to tighten sanctions they have already imposed on Russia and add more.
Blinken is traveling to Brussels for meetings this week with other NATO foreign ministers, looking to highlight the military alliance’s resolve to hold Russia responsible for continued fighting in Ukraine.
The Reuters news agency reports that Ukraine has “retaken more than 30 towns and villages around Kyiv.”
Zelenskyy, however, warned that what Russia has left behind in Kyiv and its nearby areas is a “complete disaster,” a territory with mined land, houses and equipment. The president claimed even the bodies of the dead have been mined.
Zelenskyy said Saturday in his nightly address, “We should not cherish empty hopes that” the Russians “will simply leave our land.” He said peace could only be gained through “hard battles,” “negotiations” and “daily vigorous work.”
Reports from Odesa, on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, say a Russian missile strike on an oil refinery there has destroyed the facility. The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement, “This morning, high-precision sea- and air-based missiles destroyed an oil refinery and three storage facilities for fuel and lubricants near the city of Odesa, from which fuel was supplied to a group of Ukrainian troops.”
British military intelligence said Sunday that reported mines in the Black Sea are a serious risk to maritime activity. The agency said that the origin of the mines is disputed and unclear but is likely to be due to Russian military activity.
Ukraine’s chief negotiator has indicated, however, that talks between Zelenskyy and Putin could be possible after “Moscow’s negotiators informally agreed to most of a draft proposal discussed during face-to-face talks in Istanbul” last week, according to an Associated Press news report.
In the besieged southeastern port city of Mariupol Sunday, residents continued to wait for an International Committee of the Red Cross humanitarian convoy designed to evacuate residents and bring humanitarian aid. The Associated Press reports that as many as 100,000 people are thought to be trapped in the city that has been surrounded by Russian troops for more than a month.