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Russian soldier gets life in prison in Ukraine’s initial war crimes trial

Russian Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin is escorted by police officers to a vehicle as he leaves after a court hearing in Kyiv on May 23. (Oleg Petrasyuk/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Ukrainian judges on Monday found a 21-year-old Russian soldier guilty of war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison, a swift conclusion that prosecutors said could invigorate many more such investigations.

A court in Kyiv handed down the verdict after the sergeant from a Russian tank unit, Vadim Shishimarin, pleaded guilty last week to killing Oleksandr Shelipov, 62, in Ukraine’s northeastern Sumy region in the opening days of Russia’s invasion.

Shishimarin said he was following orders. But a panel of three judges found him guilty of premeditated murder and violating “the rules and customs of war” under Ukraine’s criminal code.

The case is one of 13,000 investigations into possible war crimes, Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova told The Washington Post — and the first to reach a verdict. War crimes prosecutions are rare in the middle of an ongoing conflict, and Venediktova framed it as in part an effort to send a message that Ukraine intends to hold soldiers accountable for their actions against civilians.

“If they decide to do such atrocities, to kill, to rape, to loot, to torture, we will find everyone,” she told The Post’s David Ignatius in a live conversation on Monday after the verdict was announced. “We will identify all of you, we start to prosecute, and you will be responsible for all your atrocities.”

Town by town, Ukrainian prosecutors build war-crimes cases

Since the war began, tens of thousands of investigators, alongside activists and officials, have fanned out across Ukraine to collect testimony and evidence they hope to use in war crimes prosecutions against Russia.

Investigators have found mass graves and other signs of a campaign of torturing and killing civilians in suburbs outside Kyiv.

Shishimarin admitted to fatally shooting Shelipov, who was unarmed and pushing his bicycle near the village of Chupakhivka, near the Russian border on Feb. 28. Shelipov “died on the spot just a few meters from his home,” Venediktova said earlier this month.

Shishimarin’s charge was punishable by 10 years to life in prison. Victor Ovsyanikov, his Ukrainian court-appointed lawyer, said he was unsurprised by the life sentence given “certain pressure from society.” Ovsyanikov told local journalists he plans to appeal.

“The guilt of the accused has been fully confirmed,” said Judge Serhiy Agafonov, one of the three-member panel who handed down the sentence. “Shishimarin, as a Russian serviceman, violated the laws and customs of war.”

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As the Solomyansky District Court in Kyiv prepared to hand down its verdict, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would consider its options to protect Shishimarin’s interests.

“Of course, we are concerned about the fate of our citizen,” Peskov said. “Unfortunately, we are unable to defend his interests on the ground. This … does not mean we will stop considering ways to continue our efforts through other channels.”

Shishimarin’s face appeared blank and his eyes downcast during the hearing. Clad in a blue and gray sweatshirt, he listened to his translator whisper from behind the glass windows of a courtroom detention box.

Prosecutors argued that Shishimarin, a member of Russia’s 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya tank division, committed a war crime when he fired rounds from his rifle at Shelipov. Shishimarin said he was ordered by an officer — though not one he knew by name — to shoot Shelipov because the man was talking on a cellphone and they feared he would report their location after they had fled a nearby battle in a stolen car.

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Ovsyanikov said it was important to preserve Shishimarin’s right to defense counsel even though the case against him was strong.

Shishimarin feared for his own safety if he didn’t kill Shelipov and he did not aim the shots he fired, his lawyer said, adding that the sergeant let off a short burst of his rifle to satisfy the demand that he shoot.

Shelipov’s widow, Kateryna Shelipova, told the court last week that her husband, a tractor driver, had simply been on his way to look at a tank that had been blown up.

Citing one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unfounded justifications for the war — that Moscow was rescuing Ukrainians from “Nazis” — she asked Shishimarin: “What did you come to us for? You came to protect us? From whom? You ‘protected’ me from my husband, whom you killed.”

The soldier replied: “Yes, I admit guilt. I understand that you will not be able to forgive me. I ask for forgiveness for what was done.”

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While prisoners of war cannot be tried for fighting in a conflict, they can be prosecuted for war crimes — including for deliberately targeting civilians or attacking hospitals or schools. A separate trial involving two Russian soldiers charged with the alleged shelling of civilian targets in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine is ongoing.

Legal experts said that Ukraine’s strategy of aggressively prosecuting low-level soldiers may carry risks, including that Kyiv’s own soldiers in Russian custody could face similar treatment.

Robert Goldman, a war crimes and human rights expert at American University’s Washington College of Law, questioned the decision to impose “the harshest possible” on a low-ranking soldier who said he was carrying out orders.

“The sentence seems to reflect a form of collective guilt,” Goldman said. “This soldier did not plan and execute an aggressive war. … He will be seen in Russia and other places as a scapegoat” for Putin and other officials responsible for the invasion.

Goldman said the trial could “engender reciprocal trials [by Russia and its proxies in eastern Ukraine] that will be utterly devoid of due process. … I think that the idea that these Ukrainian soldiers will get an independent and impartial court tried by Russia or its proxies is virtually nil.”

Ukraine, which is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, appears to be adhering to international guidelines on prosecuting war crimes, legal experts said, including the right of the defendant to a competent lawyer and fair trial by an independent court.

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Ukraine has welcomed a wide range of war crimes investigations on its soil, including some from the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

International courts typically defer to national courts if countries are able to pursue cases on their own, but international law offers a framework to pursue the high-level commanders who are ultimately responsible for war crimes even if they themselves are not in the field.

Ukrainian policymakers haven’t made clear how they are deciding which cases they pursue versus those they hand to international courts. They have said they welcome the International Criminal Court’s involvement to help bolster the appearance of impartiality.

The international legal assistance comes alongside a wide range of other practical help for Kyiv as it continues to battle Russia in its eastern territories.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Monday that 20 countries had pledged new security assistance packages for Ukraine, including “critically needed artillery ammunition, coastal defense systems, and tanks and other armored vehicles.”

Austin singled out Denmark, which he said promised to send Ukraine “a Harpoon launcher and missiles to help Ukraine defend its coast,” as well as the Czech Republic, which he said gave a “recent donation of attack helicopters, tanks and rocket systems.”

Other participating nations have donated artillery rounds and armored vehicles, or agreed to provide the Ukrainians with training and other help.

Some 47 nations are now coordinating assistance through an umbrella structure known as the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which is scheduled to meet again June 15 on the sidelines of a NATO defense ministers ministerial session.

Pietsch reported from Seoul; Timsit from London; Birnbaum and Westfall from Washington. David L. Stern in Mukachevo, Ukraine; Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia; and Paulina Villegas, Claire Parker, and Karoun Demirjian in Washington contributed to this report.