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A Russian war crime

A Russian war crime

A 21-year-old soldier has been jailed for life for killing an unarmed civilian in the early days of the Russian invasion. What does it mean and how might the Kremlin retaliate?

“The soldier seemed nervous and said little until the words that mattered. Asked whether he admitted his guilt, Vadim Shishimarin told the judge: ‘Yes.’”

BBC News

Vadim Shishimarin is a 21-year-old sergeant in the Russian army. He used to work in a tyre repair shop in Moscow and joined the army in part, to support his family after his stepfather died.

Oleksandr Shelipov was a retired tractor operator. The 62 year old lived with his wife Kateryna in a quiet village in eastern Ukraine.

Vadim and Oleksandr are unlikely to have ever come across each other if Russia hadn’t invaded Ukraine.

“Russian military attacking from the south, the north, the east, taking out military installations and moving closer tonight on strategic cities.”

ABC News

“Sumy is a key border town that the Russians need to take if they are to secure their supply lines from the east.”

Channel 4 News

On 28 February, Vadim Shishimarin was moving with his tank unit towards the city of Sumy, when he came under attack from Ukrainian forces.

With four other soldiers, he fled in a stolen Volkswagen Passat. He was in the back, carrying a Kalashnikov AK-74. 

As they retreated they came across Oleksandr Shelipov, unarmed and pushing his bicycle through the village of Chupakhivka.

Vadim Shishimarin was ordered to shoot Oleksandr. The soldiers apparently feared he might give away their location.

He fired multiple rounds from the car window, killing Oleksandr Shelipov with four shots to the head.

Oleksandr was found by his neighbour, his skull resting between two trees. Local hunters stopped Vadim Shishimarin from escaping.

***

“We start in Ukraine where the first war crimes case against a Russian soldier has begun in Kyiv.”

BBC News

Less than three months later, Vadim Shishimarin was in a glass box in a Kyiv courtroom, wearing a blue-grey hoodie; his head was shaved.

It was a pretty easy case for the Ukrainian authorities. Vadim Shishimarin pleaded guilty to the crime, not just formally – but in an exchange with the widow of his victim.

“Please tell me, do you repent the crime you committed?”

“Yes, I admit guilt. I understand you will not be able to forgive me. I apologise for everything I’ve done.”

Kateryna Shelipova and Vadim Shishimarin, Reuters

Shishimarin’s Ukrainian lawyer asked judges to acquit his client on the grounds that he was only following orders, but that didn’t hold water. 

He was jailed for life.

So what does Vadim Shishimarin’s conviction tell us about what’s to come?

What we see on the ground in all regions of Ukraine, it’s war crimes, crimes against humanity, and we do everything to fix it.

Iryna Venediktova, Sky News

Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, is bullish. She says that a further 48 soldiers will be tried for other alleged war crimes. Ukraine is investigating thousands of potential cases. 

It is highly unusual to have war crime trials during a conflict, but Ukraine is trying cases quickly in the hope it may deter Russian troops from carrying out further atrocities.

Because there appears to be no shortage of evidence that Russia has broken the rules of war.

“These are Russian soldiers on their way to loot and kill. But their every move is caught on multiple cameras. The men talk, even smoke, and then the soldiers leave… But suddenly, two turn back. They shoot Leonid and a second man multiple times in their backs.”

BBC News

But diplomacy may yet halt Ukraine’s march towards justice.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, had previously described the charges against Vadim Shishimarin as “outrageous” and “staged”.

There are fears that convicting Russian soldiers could provoke Moscow into putting captured Ukrainian fighters on trial, chiefly the hundreds of soldiers who surrendered in Mariupol. 

Russian lawmakers have suggested some could be executed.

***

Aside from the threat of retaliation, those seeking justice shouldn’t take Vadim Shishimarin’s conviction for granted. 

The soldier’s confession made his case fairly straightforward. 

But future trials may test the nuances of the Geneva Conventions that set out the rules of war.

Protocol One states that a civilian loses immunity when they directly participate in hostilities. That is, they can become a legitimate target.

Ukraine’s mobilisation of ordinary citizens to repel Russian forces may, in the end, muddy those waters more than some might like.

***

Ukraine has more war crime trials to come… and other countries and institutions are making moves of their own.

Last week the International Criminal Court sent a 42-member team to the country to carry out its own investigation.

And a few days ago, high ranking US senators struck a deal over a draft bill that would expand the War Crimes Act.

It would allow America’s Department of Justice to prosecute someone who committed war crimes overseas, if they stepped into the US. And there would be no limit on how historic the allegations are.

The road ahead is bumpy, but with the help of the US and others, Ukraine has set the wheels in motion to get some fraction of justice for Russian atrocities.

Today’s episode was written by Xavier Greenwood and mixed by Imy Harper.