The U.N. General Assembly on Thursday booted Russia from the world body’s lead human rights agency to protest Moscow’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine and the brutal tactics reportedly used against Ukrainian civilians caught up in the fighting.
But there were a significant number of abstentions for the vote on the proposal first pushed by the Biden administration.
In the end, Russia was suspended from the U.N. Human Rights Council by a vote of 93-24 on Thursday afternoon, with 58 nations abstaining. Russia was in the second year of a three-year term on the 47-member panel.
The move came as the U.S. Congress and the European Union moved ahead of further sanctions on Russia‘s critical energy sector, the Kyiv government appealed again for more Western military aid, and Russia continued to redeploy its forces away from the capital of Kyiv in anticipation of a renewed and reinforced push against Ukrainian forces in the south and east.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate hearing Thursday the fighting appeared headed for a “long slog” and confirmed the Kremlin had abandoned its initial plans to capture the Ukrainian capital.
“There’s a significant battle yet ahead down in the southeast, down around the Donbas region where the Russians intend to amass forces and continue their assault,” the general told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
As Gen. Milley was testifying, U.S. lawmakers were ratcheting up the pressure on Russia, voting overwhelmingly to suspend trade privileges for Moscow and formally banning the importation of Russian oil. After a number of partisan and procedural hang-ups, both measures passed the evenly divided Senate without a dissenting vote.
President Biden is expected to sign the measures quickly.
Ukrainian officials said Russian forces continued to shell cities around the country, despite the pullback from Kyiv and other northern cities. Regional Gov. Oleh Synehubov said in a video posted Thursday that at least one person had been killed and 14 wounded in shelling on Ukraine’s northeastern city of Kharkiv.
Russian defense officials claimed Thursday that missile attacks had destroyed four fuel storage facilities in Mykolayiv, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia and Chuchiv, but the Kremlin’s top spokesman also made a rare public admission that the fighting had taken a toll in what President Vladimir Putin has called a “special military operation.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov conceded in an interview with Britain’s Sky News, “We have significant losses of troops. And it’s a huge tragedy for us.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and fellow foreign ministers of the Group of Seven nations met in Brussels on Thursday to discuss next steps in the crisis and keep Russia on the defensive over the mounting evidence of atrocities in the six-week war.
“Haunting images of civilian deaths, victims of torture and apparent executions, as well as reports of sexual violence and destruction of civilian infrastructure, show the true face of Russia‘s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine and its people,” the G-7 ministers said in a joint statement.
Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N., told General Assembly delegates before Thursday’s vote that the need to oust Russia from the Geneva-based Human Rights Council was even more pressing following disturbing the reports that emerged in recent days from Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, and other villages around the country that had been occupied by Russian forces.
“Bucha and dozens of other Ukrainian cities and villages, where thousands of peaceful residents have been killed, tortured, raped, abducted and robbed by the Russian army, serve as an example of how dramatically far the Russian Federation has gone from its initial declaration in the human rights domain,” Mr. Kyslytsya said.
News of the atrocities committed in Bucha quickly spread after the release of disturbing photos showing hundreds of civilian bodies — both adults and children — found in the streets and in mass graves after occupying Russian forces pulled back.
Russia became only the second nation ever to be forced off the Council, U.N. officials said. Libya was suspended after a General Assembly vote in 2011 in the chaos following the violent overthrow of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Russia has a veto as one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, but could not prevent the vote, which required a two-thirds majority to pass. Russia‘s Deputy Ambassador Gennady Kuzmin blamed the Biden administration for pressing the vote when a number of nations said a formal investigation of war crimes should have been undertaken first.
“What we’re seeing today is an attempt by the United States to maintain its dominant position and total control,” Mr. Kuzmin said. “We reject the untruthful allegations against us, based on staged events and widely circulated fakes.”
The United States’ U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the suspension was necessary because of Russia’s “gross and systematic violations of human rights.”
“We have collectively sent a clear message that Russia will be held accountable,” Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said Thursday in a statement.
Russia has heatedly denied allegations that its troops have committed war crimes, but German intelligence officials said they have proof such atrocities were part of Mr. Putin’s strategy since he greenlighted the invasion six weeks ago.
Germany’s BND foreign intelligence service said it had intercepted radio traffic from Russian military troops operating in the area near Kyiv where Bucha is located. According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, which broke the story, Russian soldiers can be clearly heard saying they were shooting civilians.
“The material suggests that the [Russian] troops spoke of the atrocities as though they were simply discussing their everyday lives,” Der Spiegel reported. “The atrocities perpetrated on civilians in Bucha were neither random acts nor the product of individual soldiers who got out of hand.”
Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters he had only one item on his agenda when meeting with officials from NATO countries: “Weapons, weapons, weapons.”
The U.S. and its allies have rushed to supply Ukrainian forces with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry and other supplies, allowing Kyiv to hold off a much larger and better-armed Russian invasion force so far. But there have been clear tensions between NATO and the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy over more aggressive measures, such as supplying Kyiv with fighter jets or establishing a no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace. The U.S. and its allies say they do not want to be dragged into a direct shooting war with a nuclear-armed Russia.
“We are confident that the best way to help Ukraine now is to provide it with all necessary [aid] to contain Putin and to defeat the Russian army in Ukraine,” Mr. Kuleba said. “The more weapons we get and the sooner they arrive in Ukraine, the more human lives will be saved.”
Ukraine’s most pressing needs on the battlefield are jet fighters, anti-ship missiles, armored personnel carriers and heavy air defense systems, Mr. Kuleba told reporters at NATO headquarters. While some countries have balked at sending Ukraine systems that could be considered offensive weapons, Mr. Kuleba said such a term is a distinction without a difference in the middle of a war for survival.
“Every weapon used in the territory of Ukraine, by the Ukrainian army, against a foreign aggressor, is defensive by definition,” he said.
Ukrainian and Russian diplomats have held a series of direct talks seeking a halt to the fighting, but the U.N.’s top humanitarian official, who spoke with top officials from both sides Thursday, said he was pessimistic about the chances for an early cease-fire, given the deep differences between the two sides.
“I think it’s not going to be easy because the two sides … have very little trust in each other,” U.N. Undersecretary-General Martin Griffiths told The Associated Press. “I’m not optimistic.”
— David R. Sands contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.