The Reckoning for War Crimes in Ukraine Has Begun

What do the first convictions of Russian servicemen hold for the future?

By , the director of the Amsterdam Center for Criminal Justice and an associate professor of international criminal law at the University of Amsterdam.
Shishimarin with a shaved head and wearing a grey hooded sweatshirt looks down as his image is reflected in the plexiglass holding cell.
Shishimarin with a shaved head and wearing a grey hooded sweatshirt looks down as his image is reflected in the plexiglass holding cell.
Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin of the Russian army appears at a sentencing hearing in Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 23. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Russia’s War in Ukraine

On May 23, Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, a squad commander in the 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Tank Division, became the first Russian soldier convicted by a Ukrainian court of a war crime since Russia’s full-scale invasion began in late February.

On May 23, Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, a squad commander in the 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Tank Division, became the first Russian soldier convicted by a Ukrainian court of a war crime since Russia’s full-scale invasion began in late February.

The day after he killed an unarmed civilian in the Ukrainian village of Chupakhivka, Shishimarin surrendered to the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces. He cooperated with investigators and admitted guilt at trial. The Solomyansky District Court of Kyiv sentenced him to life in prison—the harshest penalty available.

Thus, an obscure 21-year-old contract soldier from Ust-Ilimsk in Siberia unwittingly became the face of a historical catastrophe—grandiose in its senselessness and brutality. A pawn dragged into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war and reduced to a killer, he is but one of a thousand cogs that make its wheels turn.

One week after the verdict in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, a court in the Ukrainian town of Kotelva found two Russian artillerymen, Aleksandr Bobykin (27) and Aleksandr Ivanov (23)—a driver-loader and a gunner of a BM-21 Grad rocket launcher, respectively—guilty of the indiscriminate shelling of civilian objects in Ukraine’s Kharkiv Oblast.

Around 5 a.m. on Feb. 24, the BM-21 Grad they operated fired a volley of rockets into Ukraine from Russia’s Belgorod Oblast and another after crossing the border. The rockets destroyed dwellings and a lyceum in two villages but caused no casualties. The pair pleaded guilty and received 11.5 years in prison each.

Although nuances in charges and underlying facts explain the difference in sentences, similarities between the two cases are striking. Both concern low-level perpetrators who committed crimes under pressure in the fog of war and readily accepted responsibility.

The proceedings in Kyiv and Kotelva drew considerable media attention for being the first war crimes trials held since Russia’s armed attack against Ukraine in February. As such trials become routine events in Ukraine, causing the limelight to shift in rhythm with the news cycle, the first Russian convicts’ names will gradually fade into oblivion.

However, being pilot cases in a long trajectory that will potentially take decades and involve thousands of alleged perpetrators, they set the tone and chart the way for future prosecutions of atrocity crimes in Ukraine, giving a sense of what to expect and watch out for in the wartime and postwar accountability processes.

They also underscore the inherent challenges of administering justice when a conflict is still raging—and throw into sharp relief the eternal questions of individual guilt, complicity in evil, punishment, and atonement.

Wearing a gray and blue hoodie, Shishimarin kept his shaved head down and remained subdued throughout the trial. Except for being the youngest in the courtroom, he cut an inconspicuous figure that defied every war criminal stereotype. At the second hearing, he pleaded guilty to killing a civilian as a war crime and premeditated murder.

“Yes,” he responded quietly to the presiding judge’s question of whether he admitted guilt—“fully.” The trial resumed on the next day: His admission was but one piece of the evidentiary puzzle the judges needed to reach the verdict.

On Feb. 28, the day Shishimarin shot to death 62-year-old Oleksandr Shelipov, he and four other soldiers passed through the village of Chupakhivka in the Sumy region to retreat from advancing Ukrainian forces. When the hijacked Volkswagen they drove approached a man pushing a bicycle on the roadside and talking on the phone, Shishimarin’s higher-ranked companion Makeev Nikolai Olegivich ordered him to open fire.

Shishimarin refused at first, but a senior lieutenant who was not his direct superior shouted he must do it lest the civilian report on them. Shishimarin discharged his AK-47 at the victim, killing him instantly. Having heard the shots, Kateryna Shelipova, Oleksandr Shelipov’s wife, rushed out of the house and cracked the gate. She saw a departing car and her husband lying on the ground a few meters away from their home. She would later recognize Shishimarin as the soldier she caught a glimpse of through the car’s open window.

Ivanov and Bobykin’s process was a less eventful affair. After the accused were questioned and pleaded guilty, the court satisfied the prosecution request, unchallenged by the defense, and dispensed with further examination of evidence. The Grad driver, Bobykin, accepted full responsibility for the crimes he had been charged with: “This is all true. We fired rockets from Russian and Ukrainian territory. I have nothing else to add except that I repent.”

Ivanov echoed this sentiment yet declined to make a final statement, whereas the more talkative Bobykin chose again to express remorse: “I regret what I have done and what my unit has done. I trust the war will end and peace we long for will return.”

“The realization only comes later,” explained Bobykin during an interview with a Ukrainian video blogger after they had been taken into custody, when asked what it felt like shelling civilian infrastructure. The crew is never informed of the objectives and only hears the “dry numbers”—the target coordinates—on the radio. They have no idea what happens after the launch, he said.

The duo had been told shortly before the invasion they would be sent over the border, and some of their fellow servicemen refused to go. Ivanov claimed he refused to target and did not participate in the shelling. Their commander then had to take over. The gunner surrendered the day after their column was destroyed. Bobykin was wounded and spent 10 days hiding before Ukrainian troops took him prisoner.

Both cases exemplify a situational commission of crimes by lowly file-and-rank soldiers remorseful for what they did—and offer a perfect illustration of political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis.

During the 114 days since the invasion, nearly 18,000 conflict-related crimes were registered by the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office, most of which were violations of the laws and customs of war. Besides the 623 suspects listed in the main case regarding the crime of aggression, at least 104 war crime suspects have been identified and over 80 war crimes cases are under active development, with eight having been sent to court.

Tackling criminality on such a grand scale is a daunting task for any judiciary. Overburdening of the judicial system, failure to serve due process and achieve genuine justice, and objectionable compromises are ever-present risks. Faced with enormous workloads and severe resource constraints, prosecutors have to make hard choices, timing their steps carefully and prioritizing among cases deserving of equal attention. A sound strategy to guide decisions on what incidents to focus on, what charges to pursue, and in which order to pursue them is as necessary as the flexibility to account for developments in a volatile military and evidentiary landscape.

It is essential to address grave incidents representative of wider patterns of criminal conduct while maximizing the chances of conviction in the cases prosecutors bring forward, so they have something to show for the effort. Every opportunity must be seized to preserve proof and link crime incidents to people potentially responsible—in particular, those already in custody.

The importance of chance should not be underestimated in the enterprise of war crime investigations and prosecutions. In part, it explains why people like Shishimarin, Ivanov, and Bobykin—hardly the most responsible, notorious, or high-ranking perpetrators—were the first to end up in the dock. Although their crimes are very grave, they are fungible nobodies.

Their cases are, above all, a tribute to pragmatism: All three were low-hanging fruit. The men surrendered to the Ukrainian forces and were already in detention. They willingly spoke of their involvement in crimes to security service officers and criminal investigators. The charges encompassed few incidents and locations and did not require an extensive investigative effort. The proof to sustain conviction was readily available, not least their own statements.

Prosecuting low-level perpetrators not only allows justice to be delivered for the victims who have suffered directly from their crimes but can also be a part of the long game of building cases upward to reach those higher in the chain of command. Needless to say, pragmatism should never come at the expense of scrupulous fidelity to the rule of law and fairness for the individual suspects and the accused.

War crime trials are fraught affairs in general, but they’re especially tricky when held against enemy soldiers in the midst of a conflict. Domestic judges’ impartiality and ability to dispense justice to the adversary accused of atrocities are bound to be questioned. The other side will always vilify the proceedings as vicious propaganda, show trials, or lawfare.

Such cases are the most complicated resilience test a country’s legal system and rule-of-law institutions can undergo. Ensuring the proceedings as a whole remain fair is doubly important in wartime and postwar contexts. Due process not only benefits the accused but also enhances the credibility of the system and reaffirms the legitimacy credentials of the domestic accountability project.

Shishimarin, Ivanov, and Bobykin chose not to contest the accusations against them, thereby forfeiting some of the protections of a fully adversarial hearing. This makes these cases an imperfect litmus test for the Ukrainian judiciary, which is known to have had its rule-of-law struggles over the past decades.

But if those proceedings were any indication of its relative state of health, it would arguably pass muster. The convicts had a fair and public hearing: their so-called day in court. Their rights—whenever they chose to exercise them—were observed, including legal assistance, access to a language interpreter, and right to examine evidence.

That said, trials held in such circumstances are never spotless. None of the defendants could get consular assistance since the Russian Embassy in Ukraine is closed. Two witnesses the Shishimarin defense intended to call had participated in a prisoner swap and could not be summoned. To avoid delays, the defense withdrew the motion. Securing their attendance was likely impossible, but what if their testimony had made a difference?

Lastly, Ivanov did not contest the indictment at trial and admitted guilt, but in a media interview before the trial, he claimed he had taken no part in the shelling. This raises questions about the factual basis of his guilty plea.

Nevertheless, there are neither grounds to believe that any pressure was applied to induce confessions nor other signs of foul play by Ukrainian authorities. Shishimarin was defended by an experienced lawyer, Viktor Ovsyannikov, a champion of unpopular causes who had represented former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych during his trial in absentia on high treason charges.

Conscious of his role in safeguarding the rule of law, Ovsyannikov fought equally hard for Shishimarin. He vigorously examined evidence and even pleaded for acquittal, arguing the lack of intent to kill and the defense of superior orders. He also announced he would appeal the judgment, which means the verdict and the sentence—which does seem disproportionately harsh—could still be overturned. The fact that Ovsyannikov was appointed by the Ukrainian state gives no reason to doubt his independence and professionalism.

Still, the two first cases underscore that guilty pleas are a Trojan horse in war crime prosecutions: What overstretched prosecution may see as a gift might turn out to be a trap.

All three soldiers had a hand in their own convictions. Their admissions facilitated the prosecution’s job and—helped by a hyper-expedited sitting schedule—made it possible to complete hearings with a lightning speed uncharacteristic of the Ukrainian judiciary.

But this is not bound to be repeated in future cases. Shishimarin got a maximum penalty with no regard to his cooperation and repentance, and the other two men received but a miserly discount of six months taken off their sentences for their remorse (but not the alleged duress exerted by their commanders). If future defendants see these outcomes and decide that pleading guilty would bring them no evident benefits in their own cases, this will increase the pressure on investigators and prosecutors as well as create incentives to cut corners.

Therein lies the pitfall and hidden complexity of uncontested trials: Things can go terribly wrong. Pretrial confessions and guilty pleas feed suspicions. Has the prisoner’s right to remain silent and have qualified legal advice been duly safeguarded? Any self-incriminations must be voluntary and made in the full knowledge of their grave implications.

The intrinsic risks call for utmost vigilance. Contested or not, it is all the more important that any future war crimes trials in Ukraine (and beyond) be watched very closely by professional monitors and journalists. Ukraine should facilitate this work by ensuring transparency to the extent possible and publishing judgments.

Still, there are no indications that the three men’s admissions were vitiated or not genuine. On the contrary, the accused were consistent in their statements throughout the proceedings and authentic in owning up to their crimes and showing remorse.

In what became the most dramatic moment during Shishimarin’s trial, the victim’s widow addressed him directly. This led to a heartrending exchange:

  • What did you feel towards my husband?
  • Fear.
  • Do you acknowledge guilt?
  • I understand that you will not be able to forgive me, but I am asking your forgiveness.

Later on, Shelipova queried again:

  • Tell me, why did you come here? To protect us? Protect us from whom? From my husband, whom you killed?

No answer followed—and none was expected.

War crimes trials are unique occasions to peek into the abyss of uncomfortable truths. Not only sadists and hardened criminals but ordinary women and men become capable of the worst cruelties against their fellow human beings if placed in oppressive circumstances or if so conditioned by authority figures, violent subcultures, and hateful ideologies.

Such trials painfully expose the limits of human justice and retribution, but they also offer the promise of empowerment by attesting to victims’ strength in coping with unimaginable traumas and irretrievable losses. Although the trials can never deliver instant closure, reconciliation, or atonement, they pave the way for victims and perpetrators to get on with their lives—when possible at all.

We do not know how long the trio will actually spend behind bars. They could be exchanged and return home sooner than thought possible.

A Kremlin spokesperson did express concern about the defendants’ fate and promised to find ways to help them other than through diplomatic assistance. Otherwise, the Russian side has largely ignored the verdicts and sought to downplay the underlying damning facts as mere props in a propagandistic spectacle.

Moreover, Russia has devised a mirror response: a series of “Nuremberg 2.0” trials to be held in the Donetsk region. Widely—and rightly—decried as show trials, the first proceedings have already yielded death penalties for so-called foreign mercenaries who fought as part of the Ukrainian army.

Despite geographic proximity, there is a world of difference between the so-called trials in Donetsk and the trials in Kyiv and Kotelva. The three Russian soldiers’ apologies and expressions of remorse are not easily erased from the record. If the Russian public listens carefully to these testimonies and verdicts, these cases—and many others to come—will get a hold on their collective psyche over time.

That’s because these cases tell the same banal story: Thousands of disenfranchised young men, deprived of hope for a better future in the fringes of the Russian empire, sought to improve their livelihoods by choosing to work for a rare decent-paying employer, the Russian army. Often despite their best knowledge, they were then thrown into the grinder of a war of conquest. The majority were born under Putin and sent to Ukraine to kill, maim, and die by Putin.

This story in itself is a powerful antidote to Russia’s state propaganda and innocence narratives. When the remnants of popular trust in its leadership are shattered, the tide will turn against those who bear the greatest responsibility—and who should and will someday take their place in the dock, where they truly belong.

Sergey Vasiliev is the director of the Amsterdam Center for Criminal Justice and an associate professor of international criminal law at the University of Amsterdam. Twitter: @sevslv

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.