Editorial: Putin and Russia must answer for atrocities in Ukraine

A dog stands next to the body of an elderly woman killed  in Bucha.
A dog peers out from a doorway beside a body of a woman killed in Bucha, near Kyiv, Ukraine.
(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)

In a powerful speech to the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of the “most terrible war crimes” since World War II and rightly demanded that Russia face “full accountability” for its atrocities committed during its unprovoked invasion.

“They cut off limbs, slashed their throats, women were raped and killed in front of their children,” Zelensky said of Russian forces. “Their tongues were pulled out only because the aggressor did not hear what they wanted to hear from them.”

Other nations need not take Zelensky’s word for the existence of Russian war crimes. The world has been disgusted by images of dead civilians lying on the streets of Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, from which Russian forces have withdrawn, and horrified by the accounts of abuse. U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Tuesday that what happened in Bucha was “a deliberate campaign to kill, to torture, to rape, to commit atrocities.” President Biden joined other world leaders in calling for the prosecution of Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes.


Rescue efforts continued Monday outside Kyiv as Biden and European leaders called for swift action against Russia for civilian deaths.

April 4, 2022

Not all the allegations of war crimes involve Bucha. Human Rights Watch says that it has documented several cases of Russian military forces committing “laws-of-war violations” against civilians in the Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Kyiv regions of Ukraine, including a case of repeated rape and two cases of summary execution. Russia has also been denounced for the bombing of locations where civilians were hiding in Mariupol in March, notably a theater and a maternity hospital.

Predictably — and unpersuasively — Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, denied that Russian troops were targeting civilians, adding that while Bucha was under Russian control “not a single civilian suffered from any kind of violence.” On Tuesday, Kremlin officials ludicrously insisted that the bodies in Bucha were fake. Russia continues to blame the victim.

It won’t be easy to hold Russia or its leaders accountable for these atrocities. In his speech to the Security Council, Zelensky complained about the fact that Russia, as a permanent member of the council, could veto any resolution — and thus protect itself. He suggested that Russia could be deprived of that power, but that is unlikely.

Yet other bodies can gather evidence of Russian atrocities. Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, has opened an investigation of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Ukraine. The European Union also plans to send investigators to Ukraine to help the local authorities “document war crimes.”

Despite knowing that their payments for Russian oil and gas allow Putin to reequip his army, most EU countries have reacted only with soft measures.

April 5, 2022

Whether or not they lead to criminal convictions, atrocities by Russian troops strengthen the case for increasing sanctions. On Tuesday, the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, proposed a ban on coal imports from Russia. It’s an appropriate move, but should be extended to cover all energy supplies. The Biden administration is also expected to announce new financial sanctions.

Even if Russia had been scrupulous about safeguarding civilians, its unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, a sovereign nation, was an outrage that warranted significant reprisals. That the “special military operation” has been pursued with despicable brutality only strengthens the case for holding Russia accountable and empowering Ukraine to continue to defend itself.


No nation should want to be a party to this continuing savagery. The global community should cut off Russia from any source of funding that fuels its appalling campaign of violence and mutilation against the people of a country it claims are its brethren. While that may cause some pain, especially to Europeans who depend heavily on Russian oil and gas, it is a small price to pay if it can stop the massacre of more Ukrainians.