Europe prepares to toughen Russia sanctions over alleged war crimes

Shocking footage from Ukraine's Bucha prompts fresh calls for energy embargo

Ukrainian soldiers walk the streets of Bucha after reclaiming it from Russian forces. EPA
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The European Union is preparing further sanctions against what it called Russia’s “murderous war machinery” amid outrage at emerging evidence of massacres in Ukrainian towns.

Senior EU figures spoke of war crimes being committed by Russia after images of corpses lying on the streets of Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv abandoned by Moscow’s forces, shocked the world and revived calls for tougher sanctions.

Ukraine said hundreds of civilians had been discovered dead in Bucha and other areas near Kyiv reclaimed from Russian troops. Journalists saw corpses with their hands tied behind their back, while President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke of torture and satellite images showed a possible mass grave being dug in the grounds of a church.

France, Germany and non-EU member Britain are all promising to tighten the screw on Russia after previous sanctions packages failed to change the Kremlin’s mind and stopped short of cutting off its lucrative energy exports.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who described the killings of civilians as genocide, called for “sanctions which actually work” as he described events in Bucha as “changing everything in the perception of this war”.

“Leadership isn't cowardice or calculations. It's an uncompromising fight against evil,” said Mr Morawiecki, who named Germany as the country most opposed to an energy embargo.

Germany is among the countries reliant on Russian fossil fuels, and fears that any import ban would make its own citizens pay rather than President Vladimir Putin and his entourage.

Russia is the biggest fossil fuel exporter to the EU but the latest allegations of atrocities — denied by Moscow — have put new momentum behind calls for an embargo after some countries have shifted their focus to implementing existing sanctions.

A woman points to a makeshift grave of a man who residents of Bucha say was killed by Russian forces. AP

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said on Monday that sanctions could go “markedly further” as he predicted that a fifth EU package, which would have to be signed off by all 27 members of the bloc, would be agreed this week.

He said Germany was working to free itself from Russian oil and gas but did not come out in favour of an immediate embargo, as he blamed previous governments for leaving the country so dependent on imports from Moscow.

However, Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht said a gas embargo would have to be discussed among EU countries as she said the alleged war crimes could “not go unanswered”.

Germany is not alone in opposing an immediate ban, with Hungary — whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban won a commanding re-election on Sunday — likewise refusing to make its own consumers pay for such a measure.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits the town of Bucha after claims emerged of massacres by Russian forces there. AFP

But French President Emmanuel Macron said he supported sanctions on coal and oil as part of a fifth package after what he described in a radio interview as “very clear indications of war crimes”.

The European Commission, which would propose sanctions for adoption by the 27 members, said it would “advance as a matter of urgency” its work on further measures against “the Kremlin’s murderous war machinery”.

Commission spokesman Peter Stano accused the Russian leadership of murdering civilians, committing war crimes and violating international humanitarian law.

Aside from an energy ban, other measures floated by EU member states include stopping land and sea trade with Russia to add to a ban on Russian aircraft flying in most of Europe’s airspace.

There are also calls to completely cut Russia off from international payments system Swift after only some banks were affected by previous sanctions.

Several countries said they supported an investigation by the International Criminal Court into alleged war crimes, while Ukraine raised fears of yet more gruesome discoveries in towns still controlled by Russian forces.

Britain said it was offering support to sexual abuse survivors in Ukraine after reports of rape by Russian forces in the country.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who was expected in Warsaw on Monday evening for a meeting with her Polish and Ukrainian counterparts, joined the call for tougher sanctions ahead of a meeting of Nato foreign ministers this week.

Russia denied allegations of war crimes and described the widely-shared images from Bucha as a provocation by the Ukrainian side. It claimed no civilians had been harmed during its occupation of the town.

Western officials rejected Russia's denials as propaganda after it demanded a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the accusations.

The grisly discoveries in Bucha followed a Russian withdrawal from the Kyiv region which appeared to herald a repositioning of its forces towards the south and east of Ukraine, where fighting continues for control of the southern port of Mariupol.

Updated: April 04, 2022, 1:19 PM