The United Nations human rights office has said there are “strong indications” that Russia may have committed war crimes during its invasion of Ukraine, as Nato warned that the Kremlin wants to “freeze” the conflict only to prepare for a bigger attack next spring.
Russian president Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that it could be a “long process” before his so-called special military operation yielded clear benefits but hailed his claimed annexation of parts of eastern and southern Ukraine as a “significant result for Russia”.
Meanwhile, Kyiv said at least eight people were killed by Russian shelling in eastern Ukraine as more blackouts rolled across the country and engineers worked through snow and freezing temperatures to repair power plants after repeated missile strikes.
In a report on three Ukrainian regions from late February until early April, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said it had “documented summary executions and attacks on individual civilians in 102 villages and towns” that were “committed by Russian armed forces in control of these areas and led to the deaths of 441 civilians.”
The report said the true number of civilians killed by Russian troops in these areas was probably “considerably higher” and that in most documented cases the victims “were found with their hands cuffed or bound by duct-tape, and with injuries suggesting torture or other ill-treatment before being killed.
“In at least one case, the body of one of the victims showed signs consistent with sexual violence,” the OHCHR added. “The circumstances of the summary executions provide strong indications that these killings may amount to the war crime of wilful killing, a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions.”
Russia denies that its ground troops have committed atrocities in Ukraine and that its repeated bombing of civilian infrastructure constitutes a war crime, even as it deprives millions of civilians of heat, light and water as winter sets in.
The Kremlin also insists that it is open to talks to end the war, but only if Kyiv accepts its demands, which include acceptance of Russia’s illegal claim to sovereignty over five Ukrainian regions: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Crimea.
“What we see now is Russia is actually trying to have some kind of ‘freeze’ of this war, at least for a short period of time, so they can regroup, repair, recover. And then try to launch a bigger offensive next spring,” said Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg.
“It has to be Ukraine that decides when and the conditions for negotiations. And of course, they are also concerned about these attempts by Russia to try to have a kind of short break or short freeze of the conflict … because now Ukraine has the momentum.”
Mr Stoltenberg also pledged continued support for Ukraine, arguing that if Russia wins, “it will be a tragedy for Ukrainians, but it will also be extremely serious for all of us. It will make Nato allies more vulnerable and the world more dangerous and therefore we cannot allow President Putin to win”.
In Moscow, Mr Putin again blamed Ukraine and the West for the war and said Russia must wage a “consistent battle for our national interests… Above all, of course, we will aim for peaceful means. But if there is nothing else left, we will defend ourselves with all means at our disposal.”
Ukrainian state energy firm Ukrenergo said round-the-clock repairs – and blackouts – were continuing after Monday’s missile attack on the country’s power grid, and that on Tuesday night “the enemy repeatedly fired at several energy infrastructure facilities at once, while the temperature in the region reached -17 Celsius”.