Zelenskyy calls out former European leaders Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy for failing Ukraine as he vows justice for civilian killings
With his brow knotted in anger and his voice choked with emotion, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered an anguished speech to his country on Sunday night, after Russia’s withdrawal from towns near Kyiv revealed the full horrors left behind.
“Concentrated evil has come to our land,” he said, in a 10-minute speech posted on his YouTube channel. He called Russian soldiers “murderers, rapists, looters…who deserve only death after what they did.”
Suffused with bitterness and near grief, the speech was a shift in tone from weeks of fiery, defiant words posted online and geared to rallying Western backing for his military, and to rallying Ukrainians to fight. He spoke just hours after TV footage showed catastrophic carnage in Bucha. The town, 35 miles west of the capital and home to about 26,000 people, was the scene of intense fighting for weeks, as Russian forces tried to push toward Kyiv.
Carnage in Bucha
Zelenskyy also directed anger at European Union leaders, particularly former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who jointly rejected Ukraine joining the 30-nation NATO military alliance, during the late 2000s, for fear that it would ignite conflict with Russia and complicate the EU’s energy and commercial ties with Moscow. If Ukraine were a NATO member, the alliance would have been obligated to come to Kyiv’s defense after the Russian invasion. “I invite Ms. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy to visit Bucha and see what the policy of concessions to Russia has led to in 14 years,” Zelenskyy said.
The scale of destruction found in Bucha appeared worse than Ukrainian officials had expected: Buildings and houses were reduced to scorched rubble, and bodies lay festering on streets and in backyards, some apparently shot at close range, with their hands and feet tied.
Speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, Zelenskyy said of Russia’s war in Ukraine, “This is genocide”—which would make it a crime against humanity under international law. That underscored the question in recent weeks about how Russia might be punished for its Feb. 24 invasion and the widespread civilian deaths since.
President Joe Biden has called President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal,” while Ukrainian officials have from the start directed people to gather war-crimes evidence. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has opened a war-crimes investigation against Russia. But a successful prosecution could take many years, and prove intensely difficult.
By contrast, the devastation in Bucha could be treated as a local, criminal case with clear evidence, according to war-crimes expert Bill Wiley, executive director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), who has probed conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria, and elsewhere for 25 years. “For the Bucha stuff, it is a relatively easy case to make,” Wiley told Fortune on Monday.
Wiley said Ukrainian officials will need to identify which Russian military units were in Bucha at the time of the killings, examine bullet wounds on the dead bodies, and connect specific commanders to the murders. He says they should also interrogate whichever members of that unit they have captured. “I expect Ukraine will want to do this one themselves,” he said of a trial for the Bucha killings. “Justice in this should be pretty easy to achieve.”
Zelenskyy said on Sunday that Ukraine was preparing a “special mechanism” through which to try Russians for crimes committed during the war. He also warned Ukrainians that more carnage would likely be uncovered in other towns Russian forces have vacated.
In an attempt to counteract Russia’s message, he addressed Russian women directly on Sunday night, breaking into his native Russian, and telling them they should be ashamed of their sons fighting in Ukraine.
“They killed deliberately, and with pleasure,” he said. “For these murders, for these tortures, for these arms torn off by explosions…This is how the Russian state will now be perceived.”
The Russian military—which, U.S. intelligence believes, has lost thousands of soldiers in the war—announced last month that it would withdraw from the Kyiv region and focus on eastern Ukraine. It also claimed that Ukraine’s military had engaged in “rampant crime, looting, and marauding.”
It is not clear how many Russians have seen Zelenskyy’s speeches, which have gone viral on YouTube and Twitter. President Vladimir Putin has banned both those platforms, as well as Facebook and Instagram, in an effort to suppress information on the war.
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