'They forced me to dig my own grave': Ukrainian victims tell Congress of Russian torture. Live updates

WASHINGTON – Russia’s suspected war crimes in Ukraine were under the spotlight at hearings Wednesday as lawmakers sought to keep public support for Kyiv from faltering.

Ukrainians shared their stories with members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee at a morning briefing that was followed by testimony from Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin. The first witness spoke of being tortured and forced to dig a grave for herself.

“It’s very difficult to understand why they’re behaving like this,'' Kostin said, citing evidence of Russian atrocities in cities such as Bucha, Irpin and Kherson. "The only possible explanation is they just want to erase Ukraine and Ukrainians from the land.’’

International law sets out how armed conflicts are supposed to be conducted and bans activities such as torture, hostage-taking or attacking civilian infrastructure. President Joe Biden Biden said last month that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin had “clearly committed war crimes.”

At the other end of Capitol Hill, senators were expected to hear from Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco on assistance the Justice Department has been providing to Kostin and Justice Department efforts to crack down on wealthy Russians who try to evade war-related sanctions.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said in an interview that his goal is to give Americans an “unvarnished view” of the atrocities in Ukraine and to solidify support among Republican lawmakers who might question future military assistance to the nation.

A Ukrainian MSLR BM-21 "Grad" fires toward Russian positions at the front lines in Donetsk region, Ukraine, on April 8, 2023.
A Ukrainian MSLR BM-21 "Grad" fires toward Russian positions at the front lines in Donetsk region, Ukraine, on April 8, 2023.

Latest developments:

►The U.K. Ministry of Defense is warning of Russia's use of "narrative laundering," in which people affiliated with Russia share fake or misleading information about the Ukraine invasion to create confusion or false narratives while discrediting Ukrainian leaders.

►The U.S. announced a new military aid package for Ukraine worth $325 million. It includes ammunition for HIMARS rocket launchers and artillery rounds.

►Scandinavian media reported that the Russian military could be targeting offshore wind farms, natural gas pipelines and undersea power and internet cables after reports of Russian military ships and submarines in the area.

US REPORTER DETAINED:Russia may discuss swap for WSJ reporter; airman taken into custody in leak cases

Witness recounts digging her own grave

The first victim to speak Wednesday was a middle-age woman who was not publicly identified, and her face was not broadcast during her appearance. She told members how Russian soldiers came into her house and confiscated a map, flag and refrigerator magnets.

"They kidnapped people, kept them locked up and tortured them. In January of this year they came for me," said the woman, 57. "They took me to a torture chamber and kept me there for five days."

The woman said Russian soldiers beat and cut her with knives, forced her to undress in front of them, then fired a gun next to her head as if they were shooting her.

"They also forced me to dig my own grave," said the woman, whose daughter is an American citizen. "After all the torture, they let me go. But they said they would come back."

Like other victims, the woman did not answer questions from committee members.

Russia has abducted 20,000 Ukrainian children, prosecutor general says

Russian forces have committed 80,840 war crimes and crimes of aggression since invading Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Kostin's office said this week. They have also killed at least 470 children and wounded 948, his office said.

On Wednesday, Kostin told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the Kremlin has abducted nearly 20,000 Ukrainian children with the intent of indoctrinating them as Russians. Only 361 of those children have been returned, said Kostin, who urged lawmakers to sanction Russia's banks, its nuclear industry and officials involved in deporting Ukrainian minors.

"We have information about dozens or even hundreds of Russian officials, even of lower level in the region, who were involved in these policies,'' Kostin said. "Sanctioning them would play a deterring effect for other Russian officials who should think before taking part in these war crimes.’’

'Patriots' come to Ukraine's air defense

Leaked Pentagon documents revealed weaknesses in Ukraine's air defenses. The arrival of American-made Patriot missile systems should help bolster them.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov on Wednesday hailed the surface-to-air batteries reaching his country after months of waiting for them.

The urgency of the weapons' arrival was highlighted by U.S. Defense Department documents that showed Ukraine was in danger of running out of air defense munitions in the coming weeks after months of sustained Russian missile and drone attacks.

“Today, our beautiful Ukrainian sky becomes more secure,” Reznikov tweeted.

The U.S. agreed in October to send the Patriots, which can target aircraft, cruise missiles and shorter-range ballistic missiles like the ones Russia has used to bombard residential areas and the Ukrainian power grid. Ukraine also received Patriot batteries from Germany and the Netherlands.

Grain exports to resume

U.N., Ukrainian and Russian officials have reached an agreement to restart inspections of ships exporting Ukrainian grain through the Bosphorus Straits, the Kyiv Independent reported.

Turkey controls the straits, which permit access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea and points beyond. Ship inspections are needed to prevent the shipment of arms into the Black Sea by Russia, which periodically halts the entire process. By blocking grain shipments, Russia can hurt Ukraine's economy and drive up grain prices internationally.

U.S. defense secretary meeting with counterparts

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III traveled to Sweden to meet with counterparts before heading to Germany later in the week for meetings with leaders from dozens of allies to discuss Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Austin and allies will discuss efforts to provide Ukraine with defensive weapons. Russia is expected to begin a spring offensive campaign, and Ukrainian officials have been pushing hard for additional weapons, including tanks and fighter jets they say could blunt or reverse that attack.

Moldova continues effort to join EU

Russia's invasion of Ukraine frightened several surrounding countries, and Moldova continues its push to join the European Union as part of efforts to tighten its connections with larger, wealthier counties with significant military capabilities. On Wednesday, the European Parliament reaffirmed its willingness to consider Moldovan membership.

Moldova is part of the former USSR and has long walked a narrow path between being part of Europe and maintaining close ties to Russia. But the Russian invasion sparked Moldovan leadership to formally request EU membership, which could unlock significant economic gains. The EU has been concerned that Russian influence in Moldova has continued longstanding corruption.

As part of the vote Wednesday, the EU affirmed that Moldova can continue moving toward membership as it addresses concerns about corruption, human rights, foreign investment and energy independence.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine live updates: Victims tell Congress of Russia torture