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Moscow casts doubt on prisoner swap; soldier pleads guilty in killing

Forces in Mariupol during the evacuation of Ukrainian service members from a steel plant on May 17. (Alessandro Guerra/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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Kyiv is holding out hope for a prisoner swap to bring home fighters who long held their ground in Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant, a final holdout before Russia finalized its capture of the city this week in a negotiated surrender. But Russian officials on Wednesday cast doubt on the possibility of an exchange.

The push for a swap came as a 21-year-old Russian soldier in Ukrainian custody pleaded guilty to killing a civilian before a Kyiv court on Wednesday during the first trial on war crimes charges in the conflict, according to Ukraine’s public broadcaster Suspilne.

Russia said nearly 1,000 Ukrainian fighters had so far exited the plant in Mariupol. The Washington Post could not immediately verify the claim. At least 260 fighters, many seriously wounded and lying on stretchers, ended their weeks-long defense of the besieged facility on Monday as Kyiv announced the end of the battle there.

While Ukraine said delicate evacuation talks were ongoing, uncertainty loomed over the fighters’ fate. Details about the terms of their surrender remained under wraps, but Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk had indicated they would be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war once “their condition stabilizes.”

Bloody battle for Mariupol ends; Azovstal fighters evacuated

It’s unclear how many still remain at the plant, which provided shelter for Ukrainian forces including from the Azov Regiment, a militia with far-right ties. Ukrainian authorities have previously said that nearly 1,000 fighters were inside. Civilians were rescued under an earlier agreement.

A video shared by Russia’s defense ministry on Wednesday appeared to show a column of Ukrainian fighters marching in Mariupol on a road littered with debris. Russian troops patted them down before they boarded buses. Some of the Ukrainian soldiers appeared to be injured. The Post could not confirm the date on which the video was recorded.

Russia advanced into most of Mariupol over weeks, after a prolonged siege and shelling. The port city on the Sea of Azov helps secure a strategic land bridge from the Russian border to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014.

The Kremlin has described the exit of the fighters from Mariupol as a victory. Civilians who made it out of the plant this month recounted surviving the siege in a bunker without sunlight, as food and water supplies shrank.

Footage uploaded by the Russian Defense Ministry on May 18 shows Ukrainian fighters, some wounded, being patted down and led onto buses by Russian troops. (Video: Russian Defense Ministry/Zvezda News via Storyful)

Before the evacuation, Moscow may have created expectations that Russian forces would destroy the outgunned Ukrainian forces in Mariupol, according to analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.

On Wednesday, a separatist leader in eastern Ukraine, whose forces are fighting alongside Moscow, said a court should decide the fate of fighters, including “those who appear to be nationalists,” according to a local news agency in the breakaway region. He told reporters there were plans to demolish the steel plant.

Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, also said the highest-level Ukrainian commanders had not yet left the plant.

His comments came after pushback from some Russian officials on the possibility of a swap. In Moscow, the speaker of the Russian State Duma, or lower house, Vyacheslav Volodin, said Tuesday that Ukrainian “Nazi criminals” should not be a part of an exchange. Russian investigators said they would interrogate the Ukrainian troops for alleged crimes. And Russian news agencies said the prosecutor general asked the country’s top court to designate the Azov Regiment as a terrorist group. When the Kremlin cast the war on Ukraine as a quest to “de-Nazify” the country, it was referring in part to the nationalist Azov Regiment.

Amnesty International on Tuesday warned that Russian characterizations of Ukrainian soldiers in the Mariupol area as “neo-Nazis” raises “serious concerns over their fate as prisoners of war.”

“Amnesty International has documented summary killings of captives by Russia-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine,” the organization said in a statement. “The soldiers who surrendered today must not meet the same fate.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin guaranteed the treatment of the Mariupol fighters would be “consistent with the respective international laws.”

What happened in Mariupol, the city Russia besieged and captured?

International law requires that prisoners of war be treated humanely and protected from violence, intimidation, insults and “public curiosity.” After a conflict ends, prisoners should be repatriated swiftly.

Russia is party to the Geneva Conventions, which lay out those rules. Moscow does not accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, but the court does have the authority to investigate and prosecute events that take place in Ukraine. Countries that signed on to the Geneva Conventions have an obligation to put Russian officials on trial in national courts if they violate the law on prisoners of war, according to Todd Buchwald, a law professor at George Washington University and former head of the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice.

Videos posted by the Russian defense ministry to its Telegram channel appear to show wounded soldiers in the hospital in Novoazovsk, a nearby town controlled by Russian-backed separatists where Russian officials said dozens of injured soldiers who evacuated the steel plant had been taken. In the videos, the men say in Russian that they are being treated well and examined by doctors.

Putting prisoners of war on camera could violate international law. Rights groups and legal experts criticized Ukraine earlier in the spring for filming dead and captured Russian soldiers.

Prisoner exchanges provide a way to bring detained soldiers home before the fighting stops. Russia and Ukraine have carried out several since the invasion began, including one this month that traded an unspecified number of Russian soldiers for 28 Ukrainian military personnel and 13 civilians in Russian custody, according to Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister.

Evacuees from Mariupol steel plant describe brutality of long siege

As Kyiv negotiated for the fate of POWs held by Russia, it began the war’s first war crimes trial. Ukrainian prosecutors have accused Vadim Shishimarin, 21, a Russian soldier, of shooting and killing 62-year-old Oleksandr Shelipov in the northeastern Ukrainian region of Sumy in the first week of the war. He is charged with violating “the laws and customs of war combined with premeditated murder,” for which he could face life imprisonment, Ukraine’s prosecutor general said.

The victim’s widow wiped away tears as Shishimarin was led into the courtroom in handcuffs on Wednesday, the BBC reported.

Shishimarin said he was following orders, but the prosecutor responded that the soldier who told him to kill Shelipov was not Shishimarin’s commander and that Shishimarin should have ignored him, according to the BBC. According to legal experts, acting under orders does not absolve lower-ranking soldiers of responsibility. A constellation of testimonies from lower-level fighters citing orders from higher up the chain of command could eventually bolster a case that top leaders bear responsibility for their actions, however.

While prisoners of war cannot be prosecuted for taking part in hostilities, it is legal to put them on trial for war crimes. But the political calculation to hold such trials can be complicated, said William Schabas, an international law professor at Middlesex University in London — especially with Russia taking custody of hundreds of Ukrainian fighters from Mariupol.

The trial is expected to resume in Kyiv on Thursday and Shishimarin may testify, the office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general said. A hearing in a second court case involving two Russian service members accused of shelling civilian objects in the Kharkiv region will also be held Thursday in the Poltava region.

The International Criminal Court and the United Nations have launched their own probes into potential war crimes and human rights abuses in Ukraine. The ICC said Tuesday it was sending its largest-ever deployment of investigators, forensic experts and support staff to Ukraine. Other countries have offered to assist in the efforts to prosecute Russian abuses.

Ukraine has opened more than 11,000 war crimes cases with 40 suspects, Iryna Venediktova, the chief prosecutor, wrote on Twitter. Schabas said the trials already underway indicate that Ukrainian authorities are well positioned to handle these cases domestically.

“There’s been a huge amount of interest in international prosecutions for war crimes, and what this seems to show is that Ukraine is capable of doing the prosecutions itself, through its own justice system,” Schabas said.

Annabelle Chapman, Robyn Dixon and Amar Nadhir contributed to this report.