The foreign ministers of Germany and the Netherlands have made a surprise visit to Ukraine, stopping in the Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Irpin, where Russian forces are accused of committing war crimes before retreating last month.
Annalena Baerbock’s trip on May 10 makes her the first German cabinet minister to visit Kyiv since Russia launched its unprovoked attack on Ukraine in late February.
Wopke Hoekstra, her Dutch counterpart, also made the trip as the two prepared to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba later in the day.
The retreat of Russian forces from Bucha and other towns near Kyiv revealed harrowing evidence of brutal killings, torture, mass graves, and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians in the fighting, prompting calls from several countries, as well as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, for investigations to determine whether war crimes were committed.
Ukrainian police have said a majority of the civilians killed in Bucha died from gunshot wounds. Some of the victims had their hands tied behind their back, they said.
Baerbock said the victims were owed justice.
“These victims could have been us,” she said after touring the town with Ukraine’s prosecutor-general.
Moscow claims that Russian forces have not attacked civilians in Ukraine and says videos from Bucha showing the bodies of civilians lying in the streets were staged in order to justify new Western sanctions and disrupt peace talks.
Hoekstra walked the streets of Irpin, another nearby Kyiv suburb, and echoed Baerbock’s calls for possible war crimes to be fully investigated.
“The bombed-out houses and buildings illustrate the impact the war has had on the lives of the men, women and children who live here,” he said on Twitter.
“These acts cannot go unpunished. The Netherlands is committed to establish the truth and achieve justice,” he added.
The visit is also a sign of a reset in relations between Kyiv and Berlin over Germany’s early response to the war and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s detente policy toward Moscow when he was foreign minister from 2005 to 2009 and again from 2013 to 2017.
He has since admitted the policy stance was a mistake.
Steinmeier and Zelenskiy spoke by telephone on May 5 to smooth the rift following Ukraine’s blocking of a proposed visit to Kyiv by the German president.
The rift has also kept German Chancellor Olaf Scholz from visiting Kyiv, as he said it was not proper for him to travel there given the snub of Steinmeier.