Last month Russian authorities provided a glimmer of hope that the war in Ukraine could be nearing an end, by announcing they would be scaling down their operations in Ukraine. After suffering major losses, the Russian defence ministry announced the end of its assault on Kyiv by focusing its efforts on “liberating” the Donbas region. 

Many hoped that the Russian withdrawal from central Ukraine would mean that the most destructive and brutal phase of the conflict had been brought to an end. However, those sentiments were dashed as Ukrainians were allowed back into formerly Russian-held areas of the country, and uncovered evidence of horrific war crimes. 

The worst instance was found in Bucha, a suburb 25 kilometres from Kyiv. Emerging reports alleged that Russian troops who were retreating from the capital carried out an indiscriminate massacre of civilians. Unarmed civilians were summarily executed en masse, many of whom were handcuffed. Many instances of torture and rape have also been reported.  

In the days following the reports of the atrocity, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky went to Bucha to meet survivors. When asked, Zelensky said peace talks and dialogue with Russia would continue. Ukraine has invited international media outlets and independent investigators to gather evidence of the mass killing in Bucha. 

Days later, Zelensky warned the UN Security Council of the likelihood that similar atrocities to Bucha have been carried out by Russian soldiers across the occupied Ukrainian territory, such as Mariupol. Human Rights Watch has said that similar war crimes have occurred in Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Kyiv. There are also concerns that since the sharp backlash against Russia’s actions in Bucha, there will be efforts to conceal evidence of war crimes elsewhere. 

Russia has disputed reports of the massacre, arguing that the killing of civilians happened after Russian soldiers left the town. Russian authorities have also accused Ukraine of faking evidence, claiming that some of the bodies seen in the disturbing images and videos that emerged on social media were in fact actors. Similar accusations against Ukraine were made following the Russian bombing of a maternity ward in Mariupol on 9th March. In both instances, international media outlets have corroborated the accusations of war crimes committed by Russia. 

Furthermore, US satellite images which have been analysed by the New York Times, have contradicted Russia’s claims. The images showed that dead bodies had been on the streets of Bucha since 11th March, when Russian forces were occupying the town. The mayor of the town has said that at least 300 residents were killed by Russian soldiers.   

The atrocity committed in Bucha has refocused international attention on what many regard as the missing piece of the sanctions puzzle – Russian energy exports. The EU has been accused of failing to go far enough in its sanctions regime and financing Russian war efforts by paying €775 million ($850 million) for Russian oil and natural gas every day. This is despite several existing measures such as banning several Russian banks from the global Swift network, sanctions against Russian oligarchs and an export ban on various sectors including technology and aviation.  

However, since the reports of the atrocity of Bucha, some European countries have shown a willingness to bring their reliance on Russian fossil fuels to an end. Lithuania has become the first EU nation to ban all imports of Russian gas and has expelled several Russian diplomats including the ambassador. 

French President Emmanuel Macron has proposed a full ban on Russian oil and coal. Mr Macron’s reluctance to include natural gas in the equation is due to the continued reliance on Russian gas felt by countries such as Germany and Italy. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has announced a German roadmap for stopping fossil fuel exports, starting with coal, followed by oil exports by the end of 2022, and gas by 2024. However, there is a growing feeling among EU capitals that this is not fast enough, and that German reliance on Russian gas is preventing the EU from effectively sanctioning Russia.

Russia’s actions in Bucha raise the stark possibility that it could become a pariah on the international stage, akin to North Korea. Beyond an escalation of sanctions, Russia could face additional consequences for breaching international humanitarian law and human rights law. US President Joe Biden has reiterated his statement that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is a war criminal, and should be placed on trial.   

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