BRUSSELS — Western nations stepped up pressure on Russia on Thursday over its invasion of Ukraine, with the European Union endorsing a ban on Russian coal and the United States set to withdraw Russia’s trade privileges and to ban its energy sales on the American market.
The new sanctions came as the UN General Assembly took a symbolically important vote to penalize Russia by suspending it from the Human Rights Council, the 47-member UN body that can investigate rights violations. Western diplomats called the suspension a barometer of global outrage over the war and growing evidence of atrocities committed by Russian forces.
That evidence includes newly revealed radio transmissions intercepted by German intelligence in which Russian forces discussed carrying out indiscriminate killings north of the capital Kyiv, according to two officials briefed on an intelligence report. Russia has denied any responsibility for the atrocities.
Together, the measures announced Thursday represented a significant increase in efforts by Western nations to isolate and inflict greater economic pain on Russia as its troops regroup for a wave of attacks in eastern Ukraine, prompting urgent calls from Ukrainian officials for civilians to flee.
“These next few days could be your last chance to leave!” Lugansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai said in a Facebook video. “The enemy is trying to cut off all possible means of leaving. Do not delay, evacuate.
But Western sanctions were unlikely to persuade Russia to stop the war, and they revealed how the allies were trying to minimize their own economic pain and keep themselves from becoming entangled in direct armed conflict with Moscow.
In some ways, the efforts underscored internal tensions among Russia’s critics over how best to handle the next stage of the conflict, which has created Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II. The war also indirectly aggravates humanitarian and economic problems far from Ukraine, including rising food and energy prices that exacerbate hunger and inflation, especially in developing countries.
It took two days of protracted talks in Brussels for the European Union to approve a fifth round of sanctions against Russia, which included its first ban on a Russian energy source, coal. But the measures were softened by several caveats, underscoring Europe’s waning appetite to absorb further economic fallout from the war.
The ban would be staggered over four months, instead of three as initially proposed, according to EU diplomats. Germany had called for a longer transition period to end existing contracts, even though Russian coal is easier to replace with purchases from other suppliers, compared to oil and gas.
EU diplomats also agreed to ban Russian-flagged ships from EU ports, block trucks from Russia and its ally Belarus on EU routes, and halt the import of Russian seafood, cement, wood and alcohol and export of advanced quantum computers and semiconductors to Russia.
Ukrainian officials had urged Western countries to go further and completely cut off Russian oil and gas purchases, saying existing sanctions would not cripple the Russian economy quickly enough or enough to affect President Vladimir V’s campaign. Putin aiming to subjugate Ukraine by force.
“As long as the West continues to buy Russian gas and oil, it is supporting Ukraine with one hand while supporting the Russian war machine with the other,” Ukraine’s foreign minister said Thursday. Dmytro Kuleba, at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he urged alliance members to speed up promised aid to the underarmed Ukrainian army.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance would “further strengthen and maintain our support for Ukraine, so that Ukraine prevails against the Russian invasion.” But he did not give details.
At the United Nations, the General Assembly resolution suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council, a measure advocated by the United States and its allies, was the strongest measure the organization had taken to castigate the Kremlin.
Although the decision had little practical impact, Russia’s suspension, approved 93 to 24, with 58 countries abstaining, was still a diplomatic slap in the face that Russia, one of the founding members of the United Nations , had hoped to avoid.
“The country that commits gross and systematic human rights violations should not sit on a body whose job it is to protect those rights,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said at the headquarters of the NATO.
Russia, which resigned its seat on the Human Rights Council in protest, denounced the vote as “an attempt by the United States to maintain its domination and total control” and to “use colonialism of human rights in international relations”.
China, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Syria and Vietnam were among the countries that joined Russia in opposing the measure, while India, Brazil, Africa South and Mexico were among those who abstained. Some of those countries have argued that the move could escalate the war and called for further investigation into reports of Russian atrocities.
The last country to lose its seat on the panel was Libya in 2011, after President Muammar Gaddafi launched a fierce crackdown on anti-government protesters.
Russia remains one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council with a veto power which it once used to block a resolution calling on it to stop the war and withdraw its forces.
As UN members deliberated, the US Senate voted unanimously to strip Moscow of its preferential trading status and to ban the import of Russian energy into the United States. The legislation would allow the United States to impose higher tariffs on Russian products. Russian energy is only a small fraction of US imports, however, and Moscow is already struggling to export its oil.
The House approved the bills later Thursday, sending them to President Biden, who was expected to sign them.
The latest efforts to punish Russia during the Feb. 24 invasion were spurred in part by international outrage over the discovery of scores of dead civilians by Ukrainian soldiers reclaiming areas north of kyiv that had been evacuated. by the retreating Russian forces.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said hundreds of bodies, including children, were found, many of them in Bucha suburb, and many victims were tied up, tortured and shot in the head .
Mr. Kuleba, Ukrainian Foreign Minister, was questioned at NATO headquarters about reports of atrocities that may have been committed by Ukrainian troops.
He said he had heard of, but not seen, a video showing a group of Ukrainian soldiers killing captured Russian soldiers outside a village west of kyiv. The video has been verified by The New York Times.
Mr Kuleba said his country’s military abided by the rules of war and would investigate any “isolated incident” of atrocities.
“You don’t understand what it feels like when Russian soldiers rape children,” he said. “That’s no excuse for those who break the rules of war on either side of the front line. But there are some things you just can’t understand. I’m sorry.”
Mr Blinken spoke with disgust of the atrocities attributed to Russian soldiers, saying “the sickening images and stories coming out of Bucha and other parts of Ukraine have only strengthened our collective resolve”.
“The revulsion against what the Russian government is doing is palpable,” he said.
Russia has described evidence of the Bucha killings by Russian forces – including satellite images verified by The New York Times that show bodies on the streets while still under Russian occupation – as fabricated.
Mr Kuleba said the expected Russian assaults on the eastern regions of Lugansk and Donetsk made it more urgent for NATO members to speed up the delivery of weapons to help Ukraine defend itself.
“The discussion is not about the list of weapons,” Kuleba said. “The discussion is about the calendar. When do we receive them?
Mr. Blinken gave no new details on the military assistance.
He noted that the United States had supplied arms to Ukraine for months, totaling more than $1.7 billion since the start of the Russian invasion. That aid includes an additional $100 million worth of Javelin anti-tank missiles that the Biden administration approved for shipment this week.
Mr Blinken expressed skepticism about the peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, saying he had “heard nothing from the Russians to suggest they were serious” about a negotiated settlement.
The mayor of the eastern city of Sloviansk, Vadim Lyakh, said he was “preparing for the worst” and supplying bomb shelters and hospitals with medical supplies and food.
“We watched closely how the Russians surrounded and seized nearby towns like Mariupol and Izium,” he said, referring to two Ukrainian towns devastated by Russian attacks. “It is clear that these towns were not evacuated in time, but in Sloviansk we received notice, and that is why we are actively pushing people to leave.”
Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels and Michael Levenson from New York. The report was provided by Jane Arraf from Lviv, Ukraine, Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kharkov, Ukraine, Cora Engelbrecht and Megan Specia from Krakow, Poland, Ivan Nechepurenko from Istanbul, Catherine Edmondson from washington, Michael Crowley from Brussels, Farnaz Fassihi of New York and Nick Cumming – Bruce from Geneva.