By Natalia Zinets
LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukraine stepped up calls on Thursday for financial sanctions crippling enough to force Moscow to end the war as its officials rushed to evacuate civilians from cities and towns in the east before an anticipated major Russian offensive there.
The democratic world must stop buying Russian oil and cut off Russian banks from the international finance system, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said, adding that economic concerns should not come above punishment for civilian deaths that Ukraine and many of its Western allies have condemned as war crimes.
“Once and for all, we can teach Russia and any other potential aggressors that those who choose war always lose,” Zelenskiy said in an address to the Greek parliament.
In a symbolic move, the United Nations General Assembly voted to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, passing a resolution expressing “grave concern at the ongoing human rights and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine,” particularly at reports of rights abuses by Russia.
Washington, which banned Russian oil imports last month, took further steps on Wednesday to isolate Moscow, sanctioning two major lenders and President Vladimir Putin’s two adult daughters, and banning U.S. investment in Russia. Washington also called for Russia’s expulsion from the Group of 20 major economies.
The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, told a NATO meeting that new EU measures, including a ban on Russian coal, initially expected on Wednesday, could be passed on Thursday or Friday and the bloc would discuss an oil embargo next.
The pressure to tighten sanctions follows international condemnation of apparent executions of civilians in the streets of Bucha, a town northwest of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv that was recaptured from Russian forces.
Moscow has denied targeting civilians and says images of bodies in Bucha were staged to justify more sanctions against Moscow and derail peace talks..
Ukrainian officials say that after withdrawing from Kyiv’s outskirts, Russian forces are regrouping to try to gain full control over the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have been partly held by Russian-backed separatists since 2014. The besieged southern port of Mariupol, where the mayor said over 100,000 people were still trapped, was also a target.
“Evacuate! The chances of saving yourself and your family from Russian death are dwindling every day,” Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said.
Authorities in Dnipro, a city in central-eastern Ukraine, also urged women, children and the elderly to leave.
The Ukrainian military said that in terms of active fighting, capturing Mariupol is still the main focus of Russian troops, while Russian battalions are blockading and bombarding the northeastern city of Kharkiv.
Russia says it launched what it calls a “special military operation” on Feb. 24 to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies reject that as a false pretext for its invasion.
CALLS FOR MORE ACTION
The six-week-long war has forced over 4 million Ukrainians to flee abroad, killed or injured thousands, left a quarter of the population homeless, turned cities into rubble and set off Western restrictions targeting Russia’s economy and elites.
But Ukraine says its allies must go further, calling for a total ban on energy imports from Russia, halting any supplies Russia could use in weapons production, and sustained arms deliveries for the Ukrainian forces.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said after the foreign ministers’ meeting that members had agreed to strengthen support to Ukraine. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was looking into what new weapons it could send Ukraine.
Kyiv says starving Moscow’s war machine is the only way to bring it to a peace settlement in talks that have taken place on and off since the early days of the conflict, with both sides blaming each other for the lack of progress.
On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Kyiv had presented Moscow with a draft peace deal that contained “unacceptable” elements and deviated from previously agreed proposals.
Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak dismissed those comments, telling Reuters in a written statement that Lavrov was not directly involved in negotiations. His statements were “of purely propagandistic significance” aimed at diverting attention from events in Bucha, Podolyak said.
Many Western leaders have denounced the killings in Bucha as war crimes.
On Wednesday, Reuters reporters saw the body of a man with a rope tied around his feet and a charred hole in his forehead in the town, one of at least five victims shot through the head documented by the news organisation.
Since Russian troops pulled back from Bucha last week, Ukrainian officials have said hundreds of civilians have been found dead. Bucha’s mayor has said dozens were the victims of extra-judicial killings carried out by Russian troops. Reuters could not independently verify those figures.
Media outlets including Reuters have seen satellite images released by a private security company that appear to show bodies in the streets while Bucha was still occupied by Russia, contradicting Moscow’s assertion that Ukraine staged the bodies after retaking the town.
Accounts by at least a dozen residents of one apartment complex in Bucha painted a picture of violence and intimidation by Russian soldiers. The mutilated bodies of one resident of the complex and another local were discovered within a building in the complex after the Russians withdrew.
In the capital itself, some residents who had fled have begun returning since the Russians withdrew from the city’s outskirts, even though officials have warned people not to come back yet in case there is a renewed offensive.
“I want to see my parents, they’re elderly,” said Olena Oleshyntseva, who arrived at Kyiv’s train station after staying in neighbouring Moldova for safety. She started to cry as she whispered: “I am their daughter.”
While Russia’s prime minister said its economy faced the most difficult situation in three decades because of Western sanctions, extending them into the energy sector poses a challenge for Europe too.
Approval of the latest EU sanctions, targeting almost 20 billion euros ($21.78 billion) in trade, was delayed because Germany wanted more time to implement a ban on Russian coal, an EU source said. The ban could be approved on Thursday but would not take effect until August, a month later than previously proposed.
Britain, outside the EU, said it would ban imports of Russian coal at the end of the year.
Banning Russian crude imports, as the EU executive has said it will do next, could prove trickier. Russian gas accounts for about 40% of gas consumption in the 27-country bloc and its oil about a third of crude imports.
($1 = 0.9181 euros)
(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Lincoln Feast, Tomasz Janowski and Frances Kerry; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Catherine Evans and Daniel Wallis)