Atrocities near Kyiv fuel global outrage. Will it be a tipping point in the war?
Warning: This story contains graphic images and descriptions.
- The bodies of hundreds of civilians have been found in towns around Kyiv after Russian forces retreated, according to images and reports from journalists and Ukrainian officials.
- These reports provide key evidence for war crimes investigations and could help accelerate the probes, experts say.
- The atrocities have ratcheted up global outrage and calls for more sanctions but whether they mark a tipping point that could change Russia's approach to the war is less clear.
In the Ukrainian town of Bucha, a corpse could be seen lying in the street, the man’s arms tied behind his back. Other images from the Kyiv suburb showed bodies scattered in debris-strewn streets and some thrown into a mass grave.
In Motyzhyn, west of Kyiv, four people appeared to Associated Press journalists to have been thrown into a pit after being shot at close range. Residents told reporters the mayor and their family members, bound and blindfolded, were among them.
Ukrainian officials identified the mayor as Olha Sukhenko.
"Nobody expected this," Ukrainian Denys Dniprovskyi, 36, told USA TODAY via phone Monday from Kyiv, about a half-hour drive from Bucha. "It was some rumors, but the reality is much worse."
Photos and news reports of dead civilians in areas around the capital Kyiv, which was retaken by Ukrainian forces after a Russian retreat, have ratcheted up global outrage, possibly marking a pivotal moment six weeks into Russia's war in Ukraine.
The apparent slaughter of civilians, condemned by leaders across the globe, has prompted calls for a tough new round of sanctions from French President Emmanuel Macron and President Joe Biden, who called for a war crimes trial of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
'THIS GUY IS BRUTAL':Biden calls for war crimes trial for Putin for atrocities in Ukraine
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has denounced the killings as "genocide," a war crime. But asked by a reporter Monday, Biden declined to characterize the atrocities as "genocide."
"We saw what happened in Bucha. He is a war criminal," Biden told reporters.
Key evidence for war crimes investigations
Ukrainian officials said the bodies of 410 civilians were found in Kyiv-area towns recently retaken from Russian forces. In Bucha, 280 people were buried in mass graves, according to Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskyy. That figure could not be independently verified by USA TODAY.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Monday cited reports of violence against civilians in towns including Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel.
"We are seeing credible reports of torture, rape and civilians executed alongside their families. There are reports and images of a nightmare litany of atrocities, including reports of land mines and booby traps left behind by Putin’s forces," he said.
Price added: "The images we have seen and reports we have heard suggest these atrocities are not the act of a rogue soldier. They are part of a broader, troubling campaign."
The Associated Press said its journalists saw 21 bodies, including nine in civilian clothes apparently shot at close range at a site that locals said was used as a Russian base. At least two had their hands tied behind their backs.
One BBC journalist visited the basement of a Bucha home to find the bodies of five men in civilian clothes, their hands bound, who appeared to have been shot.
"It's very difficult to process it on a human level because all sorts of emotions hit you, and not all of them are useful," Maryan Zablotskyy, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, told USA TODAY via phone on Monday as he drove to Lviv. "What this means, not just for Ukraine but for generally the world as a whole, now they truly see the real face of Vladimir Putin – not only him but also his armed forces."
Despite the horrifying reports that continue to emerge from Bucha, it was the nearby town of Borodyanka that suffered the greatest number of civilian casualties in the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, said on national television Monday.
Volodymyr Omelyan, Ukraine’s former infrastructure minister who recently joined the nation's volunteer Territorial Defense Forces in Kyiv, told USA TODAY he saw bodies of people in civilian clothes lying on streets in areas surrounding the capital city.
"It is nothing new for people who know history. But definitely for Ukrainians and for the civilized world, it's a great shock because it was hardly imaginable a such thing happening in the 21st century in the middle of Europe," Omelyan said from Kyiv over the phone.
Experts said the reports provide key evidence for war crimes and could help accelerate war crimes investigations.
"It's quite unusual to be able to get this kind of evidence of likely war crimes because it's unusual that the attacking military withdraws so rapidly from a front of occupied territory, and that Ukrainian forces and journalists and presumably war crimes investigators are able to get there quickly and document the situation," said Kathryn Sikkink, a professor of human rights policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
She added that it will still be "difficult, if not impossible, to hold Putin or high-level Russian officials accountable for the invasion" because the International Criminal Court doesn’t have a police force and other countries will not implement an arrest warrant within Russia.
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Tipping point that changes Russia's approach?
Whether the atrocities mark a tipping point that could change Russia's approach to the war is less clear. Some experts said they doubted international condemnation of the crimes would influence Putin's calculus.
"Though the rest of the world will rightly condemn Russia for these atrocities, it is unlikely that such condemnations will affect Putin’s war strategy or the behavior of his forces in Ukraine," said Arne Westad, a historian at Yale University.
After emerging reports over the weekend, Lithuania, Germany and France announced plans Monday to effectively expel some Russian diplomats. At the same time, some European nations are divided on whether to embargo Russian oil and coal.
The U.S. plans to impose new sanctions on Russia this week, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday.
Outrage over the killings, which Russia has denied, also could stymie peace talks.
"It’s very difficult to negotiate when you see what they have done here," Zelenskyy told reporters during a visit to Bucha on Monday.
William Pomeranz, acting director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on Russian and Eurasia research, said the apparent atrocities will likely influence public opinion for years to come.
"Clearly this massacre will influence public opinion," he said. "It just means the tensions between these two countries, if indeed Ukraine remains a country, will last for generations."
Whether the deaths influence Russian public opinion isn’t clear given disinformation in Russia and arrests of protesters.
Russian media have shared images of mass graves and of bodies lying on the streets of Kyiv suburbs and have attributed the deaths to Ukrainian forces, said Nika Aleksejeva, a Latvia-based researcher with the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.
"The overwhelming narrative is that it is not Russian soldiers but Ukrainian who staged the scene for foreign journalists to shock the world, or who shot people with white armbands themselves," Aleksejeva said.
'The worst ghosts of World War II'
The suspected war crimes remind many historians of past Russian tactics, including the brutal leveling of the Chechen capital, Grozny, and the bombing and siege of Aleppo, Syria. Mass graves of hundreds of bodies have been uncovered in Chechnya in recent decades, Westad noted.
"I’m afraid that we will find more of these sites in Ukraine when the Russian troops withdraw," Westad said.
John Randolph, director of the Russian, East European and Eurasian Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said reports from the territories liberated by Ukraine invoke "the worst ghosts of World War II."
"The scenes out of Ukraine towns and villages and suburbs like Bucha repeat the killing fields of the Holocaust, with mass executions of bound citizens and bullets to the head," he said.
Dniprovskyi, who has been transporting food and medicine in and around Kyiv in recent weeks, said he's terrified to reach out to friends and old neighbors.
"I'm really afraid even to call them because I'm not sure they still alive," he said.
Omelyan, the former infrastructure minister, said he believes Russians are committing similar acts of brutality in other areas, including in the besieged city of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine.
"The most awful pictures I'm 100% sure will come from Mariupol," he said.
Chris Kenning reported from Louisville, Kentucky. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @chris_kenning. Grace Hauck reported from Chicago. Contact her at email@example.com or at @grace_hauck.