The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin is trying to silence those who tell of the war’s horrors

Ilya Yashin gestures in a defendants' glass cage before the verdict was read in Moscow on Dec. 9. (Yuri Kochetkov/Pool via REUTERS)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has imposed Stalin-like restrictions on speech about the military and its disastrous invasion of Ukraine. On Friday, opposition politician Ilya Yashin was sentenced to 8½ years in prison for calling attention to possible war crimes committed by Russian troops in the Ukrainian city of Bucha during the early days of the war. This marks another attempt to lock up the truth.

In a YouTube livestream in April, Mr. Yashin dissected evidence of potential war crimes documented by Western journalists and Ukrainian officials to debunk the official Kremlin line that the reports were staged or fabricated to smear Russia. Criticism of the military has been made criminal under Russian law. Mr. Yashin, who helped organize protests against Mr. Putin in 2011, was charged in July and tried recently for “spreading false information” about the military.

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False information? A growing body of evidence suggests otherwise. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Dec. 7 published the report of an investigation that found Russian forces had carried out at least 441 extrajudicial killings of civilians around Kyiv. The investigators documented 73 summary killings in Bucha, and they were working to corroborate 105 more. The report said that when Ukrainian security forces and journalists entered the town on April 2, they “saw dozens of dead bodies, first on the streets and then in many other locations: in yards, apartments, basements, vehicles, forested areas and improvised individual and collective graves.”

Mr. Putin may hope that by jailing Mr. Yashin, he will intimidate others into silence. But the truth won’t sit quietly behind bars. The barbarism that has taken place in Ukraine is being closely observed and should lead to war crimes trials. Recently, researchers at the Royal United Services Institute in London obtained copies of orders issued to a range of Russian units before and during the launch of the invasion on Feb. 24. Their plans included “the murder of Ukraine’s executive branch and the capture of parliament.” The Russian security services and military rehearsed “kill-or-capture” missions to find those behind Ukraine’s pro-democracy Maidan Revolution in 2014. They were to be put on trial and executed. The plans included seizing Ukraine’s national heating, electricity and financial operations to subjugate the population. Mr. Putin assumed Ukrainians would submit in a matter of days. Such was the depth of Mr. Putin’s delusion, which has now led to tens of thousands of deaths.

“We won this trial,” Mr. Yashin declared on his Telegram channel after the verdict. “We told the truth about the war crimes and called to stop the bloodshed. … With this hysterical verdict, the authorities want to frighten us all, but in fact they only show their weakness. … Only weak leaders seek to shut everyone up, to burn out any dissent.”

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