By Ken Bredemeier
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Thursday that more credible reports of Russian atrocities against Ukrainian civilians are coming out of the war-ravaged country and vowed that “one day, somehow, there will be accountability” for Moscow.
The top U.S. diplomat, after meeting with an array of NATO and allied foreign ministers in Brussels, said, “The revulsion at what the Russian government is doing is palpable.”
He described one account of the Russian onslaught on the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, where 410 bodies of Ukrainians have been found, many of them left to die in the streets before Russian troops pulled out to launch new attacks on southern and eastern Ukrainian cities.
Blinken said a woman and 40 other people were forced into a small Bucha town square and watched as “five young men were ordered to kneel,” and one was then shot in the back of his head.
Blinken said that according to the woman’s account, the Russian executioner said of the man he had killed, “This is dirt. We’re here to cleanse you from the dirt.”
Russia has denied killing civilians in Bucha.
Blinken said the U.S. and its NATO allies remain wholly committed to supplying Ukraine with more arms to defend itself against Russia.
There is a mounting death toll from the six-week-long war, including Ukrainian civilians and fighters from both sides.
“We have significant losses of troops, and it’s a huge tragedy for us,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the British channel Sky News in an interview.
Ahead of the NATO meeting, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba dismissed the reluctance of some countries to fulfill Ukrainian requests for arms due to fears of being drawn into the conflict with Russia, saying that by giving Ukraine what it needs, Ukrainians will do the fighting so no one else has to.
“I think the deal that Ukraine is offering is fair: You give us weapons, we sacrifice our lives, and the war is contained in Ukraine,” Kuleba said.
“The more weapons we get, and the sooner they arrive in Ukraine, the more human lives will be saved, the more cities and villages will not be destructed, and there will be no more Buchas,” Kuleba said.
Kuleba welcomed new Western sanctions against Russia but called for further measures, including a full embargo on Russian oil and gas sales, blocking all Russian banks from the SWIFT banking system and closing ports to Russian vessels and goods.
“I hope we will never face a situation again when to step up the sanctions pressure, we need atrocities like at Bucha to be revealed and to impress and to shock other partners to the extent that they sit down and say, ‘OK, fine, we will introduce new sanctions,’” Kuleba said. “I don’t believe that Ukrainians have to pay with their lives, hells and sufferings for the political will of partners to impose sanctions.”
The United States and its Western allies said Wednesday they imposed “new, severe and immediate economic sanctions” against Russia, banning American investment there, fully blocking the country’s largest financial institutions and targeting assets held by President Vladimir Putin’s adult daughters.
“Together with our allies and our partners, we’re going to keep raising economic costs, to ratchet up the pain for Putin and further increase Russia’s economic isolation,” U.S. President Joe Biden said.
The new measures, according to the White House, are in retribution for atrocities against Ukrainian civilians allegedly committed by Russian troops, including those discovered in recent days in Bucha.
Biden said horrific images from Bucha imparted “a sense of brutality and inhumanity left for all the world to see,” as he outlined the steps his administration is taking to punish those responsible.
The most punishing of the new measures are the “full blocking sanctions” on Sberbank, Russia’s largest financial institution, and the country’s largest private bank, Alfa Bank.
Applying full blocking sanctions against Russia’s largest bank takes U.S. measures against the Russian financial sector to their maximum level, said Andrew Lohsen, a fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Until now, the Biden administration had refrained from applying the same restrictions on Sberbank as it had on other Russian banks because Sberbank is one of the main institutions handling energy payments.
“That seems to have changed as images from Bucha are circulating around the world,” Lohsen told VOA. “The aversion to carve-outs is eroding, as evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine comes to light.”
In a move to add psychological pressure on Putin’s inner circle, the White House said it is also sanctioning Putin’s adult daughters — Mariya Putina and Katerina Tikhonova — as well as the wife and daughter of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and members of Russia’s Security Council. New sanctions were also applied to “critical, major Russian state-owned enterprises.”
“We’ve seen attempts and efforts to stash assets in the accounts and resources of his (Putin’s) children,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
The U.S. is also blocking Russia from making debt payments with money subject to U.S. jurisdiction. This follows action earlier this week to make Russia’s frozen funds in the United States unavailable for debt payments. Psaki said Moscow will have to decide whether it is going to spend the dollars it has to avoid default or continue to fund military operations in Ukraine.
“Part of our objective is to force them into a place where they are making that decision,” Psaki said.
The move makes it more costly for Russia to remain current on foreign debt, which may eventually push it to default and lead to further consequences, Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told VOA.
“There will be investor lawsuits. They will go after Russian government assets in Western jurisdictions. So, this could potentially be a further isolation of the Russian economy in general,” he added.
Without access to its dollars held in American banks, Russia’s Finance Ministry announced on Wednesday that it had used rubles to pay about $650 million in dollar-denominated debt obligations. Payments are usually required to be made in the currency the debt was sold in.
VOA’s Patsy Widakuswara and Masood Farivar contributed to this report.