Despite Western accusations of war crimes potentially amounting to genocide, the Russian president promised to continue with what the Kremlin calls a "special operation" until its full completion.
President Vladimir Putin vowed to continue Russia's bloody offensive in Ukraine as the war neared its seventh week on Wednesday.
He insisted the campaign was going as planned despite a major withdrawal and significant losses.
Russia invaded on 24 February with the assumed goal of taking Kyiv, toppling the government and installing a Moscow-friendly regime.
In the six weeks since the ground advance stalled and Russian forces lost potentially thousands of fighters and were accused of killing civilians, summarily executing prisoners of war, and other atrocities.
Putin said on Tuesday that Moscow “had no other choice” and that the invasion aimed to protect people in parts of eastern Ukraine and to “ensure Russia’s own security”.
He vowed it would “continue until its full completion and the fulfilment of the tasks that have been set.”
Speaking at the Vostochny space launch facility in Russia’s far east, in his first known foray outside Moscow since the war began, Putin also said the West would fail to isolate Russia and its economy has withstood sanctions.
Addressing the pace of the campaign, he said Moscow was proceeding “calmly and rhythmically” to “achieve the planned goals while minimising the losses”.
For now, Putin’s forces are gearing up for a major offensive in the Donbas, where Russian-allied separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting since 2014, and where Russia has recognised the separatists’ claims of independence.
Military strategists say Moscow believes local support, logistics and the terrain in the region favour its larger, better-armed military, potentially allowing Russia to finally turn the tide.
Inhuman cruelty and genocide accusations aimed at Putin
US President Joe Biden for the first time referred to Russia’s invasion as a “genocide” and said, “Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of even being a Ukrainian.”
In the face of stiff resistance by Ukrainian forces bolstered by Western weapons, Russian forces have increasingly relied on bombarding cities, flattening many urban areas and killing thousands.
The war has driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes — including nearly two-thirds of the country’s children.
Moscow’s retreat from cities and towns around Kyiv led to the discovery of large numbers of apparently massacred civilians, prompting widespread condemnation and accusations of war crimes.
Zelenskyy said evidence of “inhuman cruelty” toward women and children in Bucha and other suburbs of Kyiv continued to surface, including alleged rapes.
“Not all serial rapists reach the cruelty of Russian soldiers,” Zelenskyy said.
More than 720 people were killed in Kyiv suburbs that had been occupied by Russian troops and over 200 were considered missing, Ukraine's interior ministry said on early Wednesday.
In Bucha alone, Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk said 403 bodies had been found and the toll could rise as minesweepers comb the area.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general's office said on Tuesday it was also looking into events in the Brovary district, which lies to the northeast.
It said the bodies of six civilians were found with gunshot wounds in a basement in the village of Shevchenkove and Russian forces were believed to be responsible.
Prosecutors are also investigating allegations that Russian forces fired on a convoy of civilians trying to leave by car from the village of Peremoha in the Brovary district, killing four people including a 13-year-old boy.
In another attack near Bucha, five people were killed including two children when a car was fired upon, prosecutors said.
Putin falsely claimed Tuesday that Ukraine’s accusation that hundreds of civilians were killed by Russian troops in the town of Bucha was “fake”.
Reports by journalists on the scene saw dozens of bodies in and around the town, some of whom had their hands bound and appeared to have been shot at close range.