A captured Russian soldier who pleaded guilty to killing a civilian has been sentenced by a Ukrainian court to life in prison — the maximum — amid signs the Kremlin may in turn put on trial some of the fighters who surrendered at Mariupol’s steelworks.
In the first of what could be a multitude of war crimes trials held by Ukraine, Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, 21, was sentenced for killing a 62-year-old man who was shot in the head in a village in the north-eastern Sumy region in the opening days of the war.
Shishimarin, a member of a tank unit, claimed he was following orders and apologised to the man’s widow in court.
His Ukraine-appointed defence lawyer, Victor Ovsyanikov, argued his client had been unprepared for the “violent military confrontation” and mass casualties that Russian troops encountered when they invaded. He said he would appeal.
Ukrainian civil liberties advocate Volodymyr Yavorsky said it was “an extremely harsh sentence for one murder during the war”, but Aarif Abraham, a British-based human rights lawyer, said the trial was conducted “with what appears to be full and fair due process”, including access to a lawyer.
Ukrainian prosecutors are investigating thousands of potential war crimes. Russian forces in Mariupol bombed a theatre where civilians were sheltering and struck a maternity hospital.
After Moscow’s withdrawal from around Kyiv weeks ago, mass graves were discovered and streets were strewn with bodies in towns such as Bucha.
Before Shishimarin’s sentencing, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was unable to defend the soldier but will consider trying to do so “through other channels”.
Mary Ellen O’Connell, an expert on international law at the University of Notre Dame, said putting Shishimarin on trial could prove “extremely detrimental to Ukrainian soldiers in the hands of Russia”.
She said Moscow may decide to hold “show trials” of Ukrainians to boost the morale of its own soldiers and spread disinformation.
“Maybe it would have happened without the Ukrainians beginning trials,” Ms O’Connell said. “But the timing suggests that the Ukrainians should have held back and perhaps still should, so that the Russians can’t say, ‘We’re just doing to their soldiers what they did to ours’.”
Russian authorities have threatened to hold trials of captured Ukrainians — namely fighters who held out at Mariupol’s shattered steel plant, the last stronghold of resistance in the strategic southern port city.
They surrendered and were taken prisoner last week, at which point Moscow claimed the capture of Mariupol was complete.
Russia’s main investigative body said it intends to interrogate the Mariupol defenders to “identify the nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians.
Moscow has seized on the far-right origins of one of the units there, calling the Azov Regiment’s fighters “Nazis” and accusing their commander – without evidence – of “numerous atrocities”.
Russia’s top prosecutor has asked the country’s Supreme Court to designate the Azov Regiment a terrorist organisation.
Family members of the fighters have pleaded for their eventual return to Ukraine as part of a prisoner swap.