Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday accused Russia of committing genocide during its invasion of Ukraine, marking the most sweeping genocide allegation from Zelensky yet, after Russian troops were accused of executing civilians in a suburb of Kyiv.
Zelensky called the Russian military’s conduct “genocide” and “the elimination of the whole nation of people” during a Sunday morning interview on CBS’ Face the Nation.
Zelensky made the genocide allegation following reports from Ukrainian officials Saturday of deliberate widespread violence against civilians in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha: Retreating Russian forces executed at least 280 civilians, according to Bucha Mayor Anatoly Fedorur, in an attack that Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba described as a “massacre.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry on Sunday denied committing violence against civilians in Bucha, alleging widely circulated photos of dead bodies in the city were staged (Russia didn’t provide evidence to support this claim).
This is the most wide-ranging accusation of genocide by Zelensky, though he called a Russian strike on a hospital in the besieged city of Mariupol last month the “ultimate evidence that genocide of Ukrainians is happening.”
“We are the citizens of Ukraine and we don’t want to be subdued to the policy of [the] Russian Federation. This is the reason we are being destroyed and exterminated,” Zelensky said Sunday. “And this is happening in the Europe of the 21st century. So this is the torture of the whole nation.”
The International Criminal Court is investigating allegations of war crimes and genocide in Ukraine, though Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin are unlikely to face justice even if the international body chooses to bring charges. Human Rights Watch said in a report early Sunday it found evidence of Russian troops committing war crimes in Ukraine, including rape and summary execution. The Human Rights Watch investigation looked at accusations from February 27 to March 14, and doesn’t include the alleged mass executions in Bucha. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, at least 1,417 civilian deaths have been confirmed by the United Nations, which noted the real death toll is likely “considerably higher.”
Though allegations have mounted that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine, there has been some debate as to whether Russian forces’ actions constitute genocide. The United Nations defines genocide as murder or other targeted violence against a group with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Waitman Wade Beorn, a genocide studies professor at Northumbria University in England, wrote a Washington Post op-ed arguing “genocide is not occurring — yet.” Alexander Hinton, director of Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, wrote in The Conversation there is a “significant risk” of genocide and “it is possible that a genocide has already begun.”
Zelensky told CBS a full withdrawal of Russian troops is the “bare minimum” for any ceasefire agreement. He also repeated his calls for a one-on-one meeting with Putin: “Let’s simply sit down together, the two of us.”