Russian soldier gets life in prison in Ukraine

Russian soldier gets life in prison in Ukraine
AP Photo/Felipe Dana

Russian Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin was the first person formally charged with war crimes in Ukraine. Shishimarin was previously captured and taken prisoner before being identified and accused of executing a civilian in the early days of the war. After being investigated and formally charged, he pleaded guilty to the war crime and was jailed pending sentencing. That took place this morning and Shishimarin was handed a sentence of life in prison. An appeal is not expected since he already admitted to the murder, though he claimed there were extenuating circumstances. (Associated Press)

A Ukrainian court sentenced a 21-year-old Russian soldier to life in prison Monday for killing a civilian, sealing the first conviction for war crimes since Moscow’s invasion three months ago.

Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin pleaded guilty to shooting a 62-year-old man in the head in a village in the northeastern Sumy region in the early days of the war.

He testified that he shot Oleksandr Shelipov after being ordered to do so. He told the court that an officer insisted that Shelipov, who was speaking on his cellphone, could pinpoint their location to Ukrainian forces.

Shortly after the beginning of the invasion, Shishimarin was part of the Russian forces moving through the Sumy Oblast in northeastern Ukraine, northwest of Kharkiv, near the Russian border. Witnesses testified that he shot 62-year-old Oleksandr Shelipov in the head. Shelipov, a civilian, was unarmed and not resisting. But Shishimarin insisted that the officer in charge of his unit had ordered him to shoot Shelipov, saying that he would be able to inform the Ukrainian forces of their location if he was left alive. This explanation clearly did not sway the court to lighten his sentence.

Assuming Shishimarin’s story is true, this is one of the many bad things that can happen during the fog of war. If any of the soldiers were just running around randomly raping, pillaging, and murdering Ukrainian civilians, they are clearly perpetrators of war crimes. (And there has been a shocking amount of that going on according to media reports.) But what happens when your superior officer orders you to do something that is morally wrong? The soldier is faced with a choice of murdering an innocent person or being branded a traitor for failing to follow orders and potentially being executed by his own unit. That doesn’t excuse what he did, but it’s a small window into the type of things that take place in battle, particularly in populated, urban settings.

The Ukrainians have announced that they are in the middle of investigating thousand of war crimes. Unfortunately, Shishimarin may prove to be the exception to the rule in such matters. There has been plenty of proof of war crimes even worse than what this sergeant admitted to doing all across Ukraine. But identifying the perpetrators is generally a daunting process, with so many soldiers wearing the same uniforms pouring through all of the cities and villages. And even if you can come up with their identity, you still need to somehow capture them alive and bring them to trial. If they survive the fighting and return to Russia, Moscow is unlikely to turn them over to face charges.

The ones who should really stand trial are the senior officers who ordered or authorized all of these atrocities. And, of course, Vladimir Putin himself for launching the unprovoked invasion to begin with. Do we expect to see that happen? I wouldn’t bet my last ruble on it.

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