CHERNIHIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian troops retreating from this northern Ukrainian city left destroyed buildings, streets littered with wrecked cars and residents in dire need of food and other assistance — images adding to Kiev’s calls for more Western aid on Thursday more fuel added Moscow’s next offensive.
Dozens of people queued to receive bread, diapers and medicine from vans parked outside a destroyed school now serving as an aid distribution point in Chernihiv, which Russian forces besieged for weeks as part of their attempt to escape from retreating south into sweep towards the capital.
The streets of the city are lined with shelled-up houses and apartment buildings with missing roofs or walls. A chalkboard is still written on the blackboard in one classroom: “Wednesday, February 23 – class test.”
Russia invaded the next day, starting a war that has forced more than 4 million Ukrainians to flee the country, displaced millions more within the country and sent shockwaves across Europe and beyond.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned on Thursday that the country remains vulnerable despite a recent Russian withdrawal, and he called for NATO weapons to counter the coming offensive in the east. Nations from the alliance agreed to increase their arms shipments, spurred by reports that Russian forces have been committing atrocities in areas around the capital.
Western allies also stepped up fines aimed at Moscow, including a European Union ban on Russian coal imports and a US move to suspend normal trade relations with Russia.
Kuleba encouraged Western countries to keep invading Russia, implying that any slack would mean more suffering for Ukrainians.
“How many buchas have to happen for you to impose sanctions?” Kuleba asked reporters, pointing to a town near Kyiv where Associated Press journalists counted dozens of bodies, some burned, others apparently shot at close range or with their hands tied . “How many children, women, men must die — innocent lives must be lost — for you to understand that you cannot allow sanctions fatigue just as we cannot allow combat fatigue?”
Ukrainian officials said earlier this week that the bodies of 410 civilians were found in towns around the capital. Volunteers spent days collecting the bodies and more were picked up in Bucha on Thursday.
Bucha Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk said investigators found at least three sites of mass shootings of civilians during the Russian occupation. Most of the victims died from gunfire, not shelling, he said, and corpses with their hands tied were thrown “like firewood” into recently discovered mass graves, including one in a children’s camp.
The mayor said the civilian death toll stood at 320 as of Wednesday, but he expects the number will rise as more bodies are found in his city, which once had a population of 50,000. Now only 3,700 remain, he said.
In his late-night address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hinted that the Bucha horrors could only be the beginning. In the northern town of Borodianka, just 30 kilometers northwest of Bucha, Zelenskyy warned of even more casualties, saying: “It’s much scarier there.”
The world should brace itself for what may soon be found in the port city of Mariupol, saying: “On every street is what the world saw in Bucha and other cities in the Kyiv region after the withdrawal of Russian troops . The same cruelty. The same terrible crimes.”
He promised that an international war crimes investigation already underway would identify “each of the executioners” and “all those who committed rape or looting.”
Ukrainian and several Western leaders have blamed Moscow’s troops for the massacres, and the weekly Der Spiegel reported Thursday that German foreign intelligence intercepted radio communications between Russian soldiers talking about the killing of civilians. Russia has falsely claimed that the scenes in Bucha were staged.
Kuleba got emotional when referring to the horrors in the city, telling reporters they couldn’t understand “how it feels when you see pictures from Bucha, talk to people who have fled and know that the person who you know was raped four days in a row. ”
His comments came in response to a reporter’s question about a video allegedly showing Ukrainian soldiers shooting dead a captured and wounded Russian soldier. He said he had not seen the video and it was being investigated. He acknowledged that there could be “isolated cases” of violations.
The footage has not been independently verified by the AP.
In the 6-week war, Russian forces failed to quickly take the Ukrainian capital and denied what Western countries said was Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s original aim to overthrow the Ukrainian government. After that setback and heavy casualties, Russia shifted its focus to the Donbass, a predominantly Russian-speaking industrial region in eastern Ukraine where Moscow-backed rebels have been battling Ukrainian forces for eight years.
The United Nations humanitarian chief told the AP on Thursday that he was “not optimistic” about reaching a ceasefire after meeting with officials in Kyiv and Moscow this week, stressing the lack of trust the two sides have in each other to have. He spoke hours after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Ukraine of reversing its proposals on Crimea and Ukraine’s military status.
It’s not clear how long it will take for retreating Russian forces to redeploy, and Ukrainian officials have urged people in the east of the country to leave the country before fighting there intensifies.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Ukrainian and Russian officials agreed to set up civilian evacuation routes from several areas in Donbass on Thursday.
As Ukraine prepared for a new phase of the war, Russia’s withdrawal brought some relief to Chernihiv, which lies near Ukraine’s northern border with Belarus and was cut off for weeks.
Vladimir Tarasovets described nights during the siege watching the burning city and listening to the sound of shells.
“It was very tough, very tough. There were fires every night, it was scary to look at the city. In the evenings when it was dark there was no light, no water, no gas, no amenities at all,” he said. “How did we survive that? I have no words to describe how we did it.”
The revelations of possible war crimes not only spurred NATO countries to send more weapons, but also prompted Western nations to tighten sanctions, and the Group of Seven Great World Powers warned against tightening measures further until the Russian troops left Ukraine.
The US Congress on Thursday voted to suspend normal trade relations with Russia and ban imports of its oil, while the European Union approved new measures to punish, including the embargo on coal imports. The UN General Assembly, meanwhile, voted to expel Russia from the world body’s leading human rights body.
US President Joe Biden said the UN vote shows how “Putin’s war has turned Russia into an international pariah”. He called the images that came from Bucha “terrible”.
“The signs of people being raped, tortured, executed — in some cases with bodies desecrated — are an outrage to our common humanity,” Biden said.
The US State Department said it was blacklisting United Shipbuilding Corp., Russia’s largest military shipbuilder, as well as its subsidiaries and board members. The move blocks their access to American financial systems. The ministry also said it would impose sanctions on the world’s largest diamond mining company, Russia-backed Alrosa.
Schreck reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.