“We believe that we are currently seeing the aftermath of war crimes and atrocities. We believe at this point that Russian troops are responsible,” Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, told a small group of reporters on Tuesday morning. But, she added, “we are in the middle of collecting and gathering evidence, so it is too soon to say definitively what happened where.”
“We’re quite confident that we’re going to be able to put together using firsthand accounts on the ground,” Smith added, citing also open-source imagery and classified intelligence, “that we will be able to put together the evidence we need to hold Putin accountable.”
Smith was responding to several Russian officials who signaled the Kremlin was trying to deflect blame and question whether international authorities could ever understand what happened in Ukraine.
Evidence of atrocities in Bucha from eyewitness reports and satellite imagery that wrought widespread attention over the weekend amounts to “exactly a false-flag attack by the Kyiv regime and its Western sponsors,” Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said during a press conference.
The Kremlin offered similar dismissals on Tuesday, with Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov calling the accusations a “well-staged, tragic show,” according to a translation of his remarks.
Peskov also questioned the possibility of conducting what he called a truly impartial, neutral and unbiased investigation.
Smith’s comments come three weeks after President Joe Biden first called Putin a war criminal. Other Western officials have since claimed that uniformed Russian troops as well as private mercenaries fighting with them have conducted crimes in the six weeks since their unprovoked invasion of the former Soviet state.
The proliferation of evidence of atrocities has accelerated in recent days as Ukrainian forces continue to retake territory from Russian fighting forces. Moscow announced last week it had succeeded in the initial phases of its campaign around Kyiv and other parts of northern Ukraine – where its forces were bogged down by poor command, unrealistic strategies and insufficient reinforcement – and is now focusing instead on eastern Ukraine, where it has supported a simmering supposed separatist conflict for eight years.
The next specific steps for an investigation remain unclear, including where it would begin. Smith said Tuesday that global organizations, including the International Criminal Court, as well as international non-governmental organizations had begun accessing information out of Bucha and other parts of Ukraine where locals report mass killings, looting, rapes and other internationally recognized war crimes.