Joe Biden has called for Vladimir Putin to be tried for war crimes as western leaders prepared a fresh round of economic sanctions against Moscow amid mounting global outrage over claims of civilian killings by Russian soldiers in Ukraine.
The US president was responding to harrowing images broadcast around the world after the discovery over the weekend of a mass grave and bodies in civilian clothes, some with their hands bound, in the town of Bucha, near Kyiv.
“You may remember I got criticized for calling Putin a war criminal,” Biden told reporters at the Fort McNair army post in Washington. “Well, the truth of the matter – we saw it happen in Bucha – he is a war criminal.”
On a visit to Bucha, about 30km north-west of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, the Ukrainian president, Voloymir Zelenskiy, went further, saying the town had been the scene of war crimes that would be “recognized by the world as genocide”.
“You stand here today and see what happened,” Zelenskiy told reporters, dressed in a bullet-proof vest on a rare trip outside the capital. “We know thousands of people have been killed and tortured with extremities cut off; women raped, children killed.”
The scale of the killings is still unclear. Ukraine’s chief prosecutor, Iryna Venediktova, has said 410 civilian bodies were recovered in the greater Kyiv area after Russian troops withdrew, while the mayor of Bucha, Anatoly Fedoruk, said the town had buried 280 people in mass graves because its cemeteries were under fire.
In nearby Motyzhyn, an adviser to the Ukrainian interior ministry, Anton Herashchenko, showed the partially covered bodies of the village head, her husband and their son to reporters. They had been shot and buried in a shallow grave, he said.
“The occupiers suspected they were collaborating with our military, giving us locations of where to target our artillery,” Herashchenko said. “These scum tortured, slaughtered and killed the whole family. They will be held responsible for this.”
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, called for “very clear measures” against Moscow, including an embargo on Russian oil and coal, while the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said the bloc was urgently working on a new round of sanctions and stood in solidarity with Ukraine during “dark hours for the whole world”.
Macron said there was “clear evidence of war crimes” in Bucha: “It was the Russian army that was there. We have told Ukrainian authorities that we were at their disposal to help with the investigation they’re carrying out. International justice must prevail.”
Germany on Monday expelled about 40 Russian diplomats in response to what its foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, called the Kremlin’s “unbelievable brutality” and “boundless will to exterminate” in Ukraine, as well as temporarily taking control of the Russian gas giant Gazprom’s German subsidiary to secure its energy supply.
France later announced it was also expelling a number of Russian diplomatic personnel, saying their actions were “contrary to our security interests”.
As the UN’s security council prepared to discuss Ukraine on Tuesday, its human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, said air strikes and heavy shelling during Russia’s invasion had killed civilians in acts that may amount to war crimes.
The British mission to the UN, which holds the presidency of the 15-member security council for April, said the council would not be meeting on Monday as requested by Russia to discuss what Moscow has claimed was a “heinous provocation” by Ukraine.
The Kremlin on Monday again rejected all accusations related to the murder of civilians in Bucha, saying Ukrainian allegations should be treated with skepticism and suggesting images of corpses “do not correspond to reality”.
“We categorically reject all allegations,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, alleging that Russian defense ministry experts had “identified signs of various fakes” and asking international leaders not to “rush to sweep accusations and at least listen to our arguments”.
Biden said it was essential the international community “gather all the details” to ensure the Russian president faced war crimes trial, describing Putin as “brutal”.
The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said the EU was sending investigators to Ukraine to help local authorities document war crimes.
Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, called for an international investigation into what he termed a “genocide” carried out by Russian troops, saying it was vital to “find out the truth on the extent of Russian fascist crimes”.
Urging more and tougher western sanctions and an end to “negotiations with criminals”, Morawiecki said the “bloody massacres committed by Russian soldiers deserve to be called what they are. This is genocide, and it must be judged.”
The Polish leader criticized efforts over the past several weeks by Macron to keep lines of communication open with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, saying: “Nobody negotiated with Hitler.” He also told the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, that Berlin should not be listening to “German business leaders and German billionaires” over sanctions, but “the voices of innocent women and children”.
Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, also said the west must do everything in its power to ensure those responsible for “these alleged cases of crimes against humanity, war crimes and – why not say it too – genocide” did not go unpunished.
Asked if he agreed with the characterization of genocide, Biden replied: “No, I think it is a war crime.” But the US president did confirm he would seek to inflict more economic pain on Russia, saying: “I’m going to continue to add sanctions.”
Scholz, said new EU sanctions would be agreed in the coming days, while the foreign minister of Italy – another member which, like Germany, relies on Russian gas imports – said it would not veto energy embargoes.
But the German finance minister, Christian Lindner, warned it was too soon to cut off Russian gas to Europe. “We have to cut all economic relationship to Russia, but at the moment it’s not possible to cut the gas supplies,” he said. “We need some time.”
Europe’s worst conflict in decades, sparked by Russia’s invasion on 24 February, has already killed 20,000 people, according to Ukrainian estimates. The UN refugee agency said on Monday more than 4.2 million refugees had fled the country.
“The humanitarian needs are growing by the minute as more people flee the war in Ukraine,” the International Organization for Migration said, adding that in addition to Ukrainian refugees, nearly 205,500 non-Ukrainians living, studying or working in the country had left and nearly 6.5 million people were internally displaced.
The US also said on Monday it would ask the UN general assembly to suspend Russia from the body’s human rights council. “Russia’s participation on the human rights council is a farce,” Washington’s ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said. “It is time the UN general assembly vote to remove them.”
Biden first described Putin as a “war criminal” in an off-the-cuff exchange with a journalist on March 16, apparently taking his own officials by surprise.