KYIV, Ukraine — Russian forces Wednesday carried out punishing strikes against key Ukrainian cities, brushing aside mounting world outrage over the execution-style killings of civilians even as Washington and its Western allies moved to impose sharp new sanctions against Moscow.
In suburbs around the capital of Kyiv, Ukrainian investigators Wednesday pressed ahead with the grim task of documenting evidence of war crimes in the form of mass graves and mutilated bodies as Ukrainian troops and mine clearers worked to defuse booby traps and explosives left behind by retreating Russian forces.
Ukrainian officials accused Russia of trying to cover up war crimes in other occupied areas, saying that Moscow is now aware that haphazard efforts in the Kyiv region had left an abundance of evidence behind.
In the southern port city of Mariupol, where municipal authorities say thousands of civilians have died, the city council claimed Wednesday on social media that Russia was using mobile crematoriums to dispose of corpses.
That allegation could not be verified. Mariupol remains in Ukrainian hands, but many people have been killed trying to leave the city.
Russia has furiously denied committing atrocities, saying graphic video footage and images that have surfaced in recent days are fake.
With the fighting showing signs of intensifying in the country’s south and east, Ukrainian authorities urged residents of the imperiled eastern region of Luhansk to flee an expected Russian assault while they still could. Luhansk’s governor, Serhiy Haidai, said on Facebook on Wednesday that people were fleeing “under the roar of enemy guns.”
As foreign ministers from NATO gathered in Brussels to weigh options to better support Ukraine in its 6-week-old battle against the Russian invaders, the European Union was set to vote on whether to ban Russian coal imports.
At the same time, Britain, no longer in the EU, imposed sweeping new sanctions, including a full asset freeze on the largest Russian bank, a pledge to end Russian coal and oil imports by the end of the year and the targeting of eight more Russian oligarchs.
In Washington, the Biden administration announced similar measures, targeting two major Russian financial institutions as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two daughters and the family of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
“I made clear that Russia would pay a severe and immediate price for its atrocities in Bucha,” Biden said in a tweet.
“Together with our allies, we are showing the Russian elite that they cannot wash their hands of the atrocities committed on Putin’s orders,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said in announcing her country’s measures.
The EU steps now under consideration, with a vote expected Thursday, would be the most stringent yet by the 27-nation bloc since Russia invaded its neighbor Feb. 24. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, speaking by video link to the Irish parliament, urged lawmakers to persuade EU partners to enact “sanctions that will really stop Russia’s military machine.”
That would include curbs on imports of Russian oil and natural gas, a drastic step to which the bloc is beginning to signal openness. Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said Wednesday that such a ban, despite its disruptiveness, would likely have to occur “sooner or later.”
Although Western leaders have voiced concerns about the Ukraine war spilling over into NATO territory, the alliance said it was prepared for a protracted conflict near its eastern flank.
“The war can end now” if Putin withdraws his forces, NATO chief Jens Soltenberg said as foreign ministers from alliance nations, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, began consultations in Brussels. But the fighting could also go on for “many months, even many years,” Stoltenberg said.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday it’s “impossible” to know how long the war in Ukraine will go on if not ended through diplomacy.
“The fact that (Putin) is going to concentrate in a smaller geographic area certainly presents the possibility that the violence will continue,” Kirby said. “It could even intensify in that part of Ukraine.”
In Ukraine, Russia has clear military superiority yet has been unable to seize the capital, Kyiv, or capture and hold major cities. But its forces have devastated parts of Ukraine with long-range missile and artillery attacks, and evidence continues to emerge of atrocities against civilians in areas previously held by Russian troops.
In an overnight video address broadcast in Ukraine, Zelenskyy warned compatriots that more hardships lay ahead. He has made increasingly desperate pleas for more Western help, including a scorching speech Tuesday to the United Nations Security Council in which he questioned why the world body even exists if it is helpless in the face of an attack on a sovereign country.
“We don’t have a choice — the fate of our land and of our people is being decided,” Zelenskyy said. “We know what we are fighting for. And we will do everything to win.”
Mariupol and the eastern metropolis of Kharkiv — battered by almost daily bombardment — were again prime Russian targets on Wednesday, Ukrainian officials said. Russian forces for weeks have besieged Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, whose capture would help Moscow create a land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.
Another principal target has been the Black Sea port of Mykolaiv, where dozens died last week when a missile strike blasted a gaping hole in a government building. The city was hit again Wednesday.
Conditions are increasingly desperate in Mariupol, where tens of thousands of people have been under heavy bombardment, lacking food, water, power and medicine. Ukrainian officials said more than 500 people made it out of Mariupol on Wednesday to the relative safety of the city of Zaporizhzhia.
“The humanitarian situation in the city is worsening,” an assessment by British military intelligence said Wednesday, noting that the cutoff of humanitarian access was likely a deliberate tactic “to pressure defenders to surrender.”
While Mariupol’s ordeal has taken place largely out of Western sight, Bucha, outside Kyiv, has become a worldwide byword for Ukraine’s suffering after the horrors of its occupation by Russian troops came to light in recent days. On Wednesday, Pope Francis pointed sorrowfully to the town’s plight as a symbol of why the world must support Ukraine.
Welcoming a small group of Ukrainian children at his general audience at the Vatican, the pontiff called for prayers for the country as a whole and for “victims whose innocent blood cries up to the sky.”
Francis then kissed a grimy, bedraggled Ukrainian flag he said had been brought from Bucha.
Russia’s diplomatic isolation over alleged war crimes deepened Wednesday as Greece became the latest European country to join in the expulsion of Russian diplomats. The government in Athens said a dozen members of embassy or consular staff had been asked to leave, joining what has become a tally of hundreds of Russian diplomats across the EU who have been informed that they are no longer welcome.
In another sign of diplomatic tensions, the Ukrainian ambassador in Hungary was summoned Wednesday by the country’s foreign ministry in the wake of days of feuding between Prime Minister Viktor Orban — considered Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest friend in the European Union — and Zelenskyy. Orban won a landslide reelection victory Sunday.
The Hungarian foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, wrote on Facebook that Orban’s government condemns “military aggression” and supports Ukrainian sovereignty, but added that “this is not our war.” Hungary has refused to join other EU countries in providing weapons to Ukraine or allowing arms to be sent to Ukraine via its territory.
Hungary’s tensions with the EU were underscored Wednesday when Orban, speaking to reporters in Budapest, declared his willingness to pay the country’s energy bills to Russia in rubles, as the Kremlin has demanded. The EU has refused to do so.
Amid the widening repercussions of the war — economic disruptions and threats to the world food supply — another hazard has emerged: naval mines drifting outside the conflict zone.
Turkey said Wednesday that for the third time, its military had detected a mine drifting in the Black Sea and was preparing to deactivate it. A similar previous episode caused the closure of the Bosporus Strait, one of the world’s busiest waterways.
McDonnell reported from Kyiv, King from Budapest, Hungary, and Lee from Los Angeles.