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Russian soldier pleads guilty at Kyiv war crimes trial as world leaders consider tribunal

Meanwhile, Ukrainian fighters extracted from the last bastion of resistance in Mariupol have been taken to a former penal colony in enemy-controlled territory.

Russian army Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, 21.
Russian army Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, 21.
Image: AP/PA Images

Updated May 18th 2022, 6:47 PM

A RUSSIAN SOLDIER pleaded guilty to killing a Ukrainian civilian in the opening stages of Moscow’s invasion during the first war-crimes trial held since the war began.

The hearing in a packed Kyiv courtroom is the first in a series of proceedings being brought by Ukraine against Russian servicemen who have been accused of carrying out atrocities by Kyiv and its Western allies.

They are also a public test of Ukraine’s judicial system at a time when international institutions are simultaneously investigating abuses allegedly committed by Russian forces.

Russian soldier Vadim Shishimarin is accused of killing a 62-year-old man in northeast Ukraine on February 28, just four days into the Russian invasion.

The 21-year-old from the Siberian region of Irkutsk in eastern Russia has been charged with war crimes and premeditated murder faces a possible life sentence.

Asked in court if he was guilty of killing the elderly civilian, the sergeant responded “yes”.

The Kremlin said earlier today that it had “no information about the case”.

Moscow’s “ability to provide assistance due to the lack of our diplomatic mission there is also very limited,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Wearing a blue and grey hoodie, the youthful-looking soldier with a shaved head looked towards the ground as a prosecutor read out charges against him in Ukrainian.

Viktor Ovsyannikov, the soldier’s lawyer, said he would build his case after hearing “testimonies of witnesses” and described the trial as without precedent.

“In Ukraine, this is the first criminal case of this type. Judges have never before announced these kinds of verdicts,” he said following the hearing.

“If we’re talking about murder, then in our legislation there are several articles that punish this kind of action.”

‘Sending a clear signal’

He added that he had not liaised with anyone in Russia on the case, with the exception of Shishimarin’s mother.

“No Russian officials have consulted with me. I have provided her with all the necessary explanations,” he said.

Ukrainian authorities had earlier said the Russian soldier was cooperating with investigators.

Prosecutor Andriy Sinyuk told reporters that two witnesses — including one of the Russian soldiers who was with Shishimarin at the time of the incident — will be brought to testify in court.

The soldier’s weapon will also be examined as part of the probe, he said.

Prosecutors say Shishimarin was commanding a unit in a tank division when his convoy came under attack.

He and four other soldiers stole a car, and as they travelled near the village of Chupakhivka in the Sumy region, they encountered a 62-year-old man on a bicycle.

“One of the soldiers ordered the accused to kill the civilian so that he would not denounce them,” the prosecutor’s office said.

Shishimarin then fired a Kalashnikov assault rifle from the window of the vehicle and “the man died instantly, a few dozen metres from his home”, they added in a statement.

Ukraine authorities announced the soldier’s arrest earlier in May alongside a video in which Shishimarin said he was fighting to “support his mother financially”.

Ukraine’s chief prosecutor Iryna Venediktova on Twitter said there were “over 11,000 ongoing cases of war crimes and already 40 suspects”.

“By this first trial, we are sending a clear signal that every perpetrator, every person who ordered or assisted in the commission of crimes in Ukraine shall not avoid responsibility,” she said.

Oleksandr Pavlichenko, the head of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group for Human Rights, said that in the Shishimarin case “the motivation is not only legal, but political as well.”

What is at stake, he said, is whether Ukraine “will have a real judicial process or just a play for the public”.

The trial is due to continue on Thursday, when two more Russian servicemen are expected in a central Ukraine court for firing rockets at civilian infrastructure in the northeastern Kharkiv region.

‘International Tribunal’

Earlier today, British Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, said the UK is open to the idea of an international criminal tribunal trying Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders over the war in Ukraine.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Pace) has called on all its member states, including Britain, to “urgently” set up an ad-hoc tribunal, with a mandate to “investigate and prosecute the crime of aggression allegedly committed by the political and military leadership of the Russian Federation”.

The assembly has proposed the tribunal should be based in Strasbourg, in view of “possible synergies” with the European Court of Human Rights.

It should have the power to issue international arrest warrants and should not be limited by state immunity or the immunity of heads of state and government, or other state officials, it said.

The UK is already supporting a separate International Criminal Court (ICC) probe into alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

russian-forces-leave-trail-of-destruction-hostomel People remove rubble on the premises of the Cheshskyi Dvir housing estate destroyed as a result of the Russian invasion in Hostomel, Kyiv. Source: ABACA/PA Images

Asked on Times Radio by the Ukrainian MP Alexey Goncharenko if Britain would back the assembly’s proposal for a tribunal, Truss said: “Well, we are very clear that Putin and all of those who’ve been behind the appalling war crimes that are being committed in Ukraine need to be held to account, and we’re working very closely with the ICC.

“We’ve sent support into Ukraine to help collect evidence, from witness statements to video evidence.

“I’ve talked to the Ukrainian government about this idea of a tribunal.

“We are open to the idea of a tribunal, we’re currently considering it, but what we want is the most effective way of prosecuting those people who have committed these appalling war crimes including rape, sexual violence, the indiscriminate targeting of civilians.

“If the tribunal will help to do that, then the UK is definitely considering supporting it.”

EU proposes billions in aid

President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, proposed extra aid to Ukraine of up to €9 billion this year to help the country cope with the ravages of war.

The money would be raised by the EU on the markets and offered to Ukraine in the form of loans, an official in von der Leyen’s European Commission said.

In a broadcast statement, von der Leyen also said it was time to think about rebuilding Ukraine whenever the war ends, adding the EU has “a strategic interest in leading this reconstruction effort”.

Other countries and international institutions should also be part of the reconstruction project, she said.

The EU money for reconstruction should come with conditions that Ukraine commit to reforms needed for it to reach its goal of one day joining the bloc, said von der Leyen.

Funding will be focused on fighting corruption, building governance capability and rule of law, ensuring judges’ independence and adhering to the EU’s ambition to make green and digital transitions, she said.

“These investments will help Ukraine to emerge stronger and more resilient from the devastation caused by Putin´s soldiers,” she said.

Russia expels diplomats

Russia has expelled 34 French, 24 Italian and 27 Spanish diplomats, according to the Russian foreign ministry, in tit-for-tat responses to the expulsion of Russian diplomats over the Ukraine conflict.

The ministry said in a statement shortly before 1pm today, that 27 employees of the Spanish embassy in Moscow and the Spanish Consulate General in Saint Petersburg “have been declared persona non grata”.

Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told Russian news agencies that 24 Italian diplomats had also been expelled.

Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement it was expelling 34 “employees of French diplomatic missions” in Russia and gave them two weeks to leave the country.

Moscow made the announcement after summoning France’s ambassador to Russia, Pierre Levy, and telling him that the expulsion of 41 employees of Russian diplomatic missions was a “provocative and unfounded decision”, the statement said. 

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi condemned Russia’s decision to expel a wave of European envoys as a “hostile act” but said diplomatic channels must remain open.

“This is clearly a hostile act, it’s also a reaction to our expulsions,” he told a press conference with Finland’s premier, adding that diplomatic channels must remain open “because it’s through those channels that, if possible, peace (in Ukraine) will be achieved”.

Mariupol

Meanwhile, Ukrainian fighters extracted from the last bastion of resistance in Mariupol have been taken to a former penal colony in enemy-controlled territory.

A top military official hopes they can be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war but a Moscow politician said they should be brought to “justice”.

The Russian parliament plans to take up a resolution today to prevent the exchange of Azov Regiment fighters, who held out for months inside the Azovstal steelworks plant while Mariupol was under siege, according to Russian news agencies.

Nearly 1,000 Ukrainian troops holed up at Azovstal have handed themselves over this week, the Russian Defence Ministry said today. More than 260 left on Monday, and nearly 700 since then.

Many are wounded, and it’s not clear how many fighters still remain at the sprawling steel plant.

Earlier, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Maliar, said negotiations for the fighters’ release were ongoing, as were plans to rescue fighters who are still inside the plant.

Ukrainians in the capital brimmed with pride for the Mariupol fighters but voiced fear for them now that they were captives.

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“I can’t imagine how they did it. As I see it, there are normal people and then there’s those guys,” one man said.

Andriy, a 37-year-old resident working in security, said the fighters at Mariupol were “supermen”.

“It was the stronghold of people who did impossible things,” he said of Azovstal, while encouraging other countries to advocate on behalf of returning the fighters to Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “the most influential international mediators are involved” in plans to swap prisoners. Officials have not said how many remain inside.

The troops in the waterside steel plant have been the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol, which has been effectively in Russian hands for some time now.

In an unrelated development that could take the shine off of any Russian declaration of victory in Mariupol, Sweden and Finland both officially applied to join Nato today, a move driven by security concerns over the Russian invasion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on 24 February in what he said was an effort to check Nato’s expansion but has seen that strategy backfire by driving the public in Sweden and Finland, traditionally non-aligned nations, towards the western alliance.

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said he welcomed the applications, which now have to be considered by 30 member countries.

Mariupol was targeted by Russia in the early days of the invasion.

Britain’s Ministry of Defence said in its daily intelligence report today that Ukraine had bitterly contested the strategic port city, costing Russia time and troops as it sought to capture a land corridor from its home territory to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.

“Despite Russian forces having encircled Mariupol for over 10 weeks, staunch Ukrainian resistance delayed Russia’s ability to gain full control of the city,” the ministry said. “This frustrated its early attempts to capture a key city and inflicted costly personnel losses amongst Russian forces.”

More than 260 Ukrainian fighters – some of them seriously wounded and taken out on stretchers – left the ruins of the Azovstal plant on Monday and turned themselves over to the Russian side in a deal negotiated by the warring parties.

An additional seven buses carrying an unknown number of Ukrainian soldiers from the plant were seen arriving at a former penal colony on Tuesday in the town of Olenivka, about 55 miles north of Mariupol.

While Russia called it a surrender, the Ukrainians avoided that word and instead said the plant’s garrison had successfully completed its mission to tie down Russian forces and was under new orders.

With the fighters’ departures, Mariupol was on the verge of falling under complete Russian control. Its capture would be the biggest city to be taken by Moscow’s forces and would give the Kremlin a badly needed victory, though the landscape has largely been reduced to rubble.

The soldiers who left the plant were searched by Russian troops, loaded onto buses and taken to two towns controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. More than 50 of the fighters were seriously wounded, according to both sides.

It was impossible to confirm the total number of fighters brought to Olenivka or their legal status.

While both Mariupol and Olenivka are officially part of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, Olenivka has been controlled by Russia-backed separatists since 2014 and forms part of the unrecognised “Donetsk People’s Republic”.

Footage shot by the Associated Press showed that the convoy was escorted by military vehicles bearing the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign, as Soviet flags fluttered from poles along the road. About two dozen Ukrainian fighters were seen in one of the buses.

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