A Ukrainian court found a young Russian soldier guilty of war crimes Monday for killing a civilian and handed him a life sentence, in the first verdict of its kind since Russia’s invasion three months ago.
The judgement came in as President Volodymyr Zelensky urged political and business elites at the World Economic Forum to end all trade with Russia and keep supplying his country with weapons.
Russian attacks are pummelling eastern Ukraine, but all eyes Monday were on the capital Kyiv, in the landmark trial against 21-year-old Russian serviceman Vadim Shishimarin.
The sergeant from Siberia had admitted in court to killing a 62-year-old civilian, Oleksandr Shelipov, in the village of Chupakhivka in northeast Ukraine.
He claimed he shot Shelipov under pressure from another soldier as they tried to retreat and escape back into Russia in a stolen car on February 28, the fourth day of Moscow’s invasion.
Shishimarin had apologised and asked Shelipov’s widow for forgiveness, adding: “I was nervous about what was going on. I didn’t want to kill.”
But prosecutors claimed he shot between three and four bullets with the intention of killing the civilian.
“The court has found that Shishimarin is guilty (of war crimes) and sentences him to life imprisonment,” Judge Sergiy Agafonov announced, as the Russian looked on from the glass defence box.
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He was also found guilty of premeditated murder, which Agafonov said was “committed with direct intent.”
“Shishimarin violated the laws and customs of war,” the judge said.
Shishimarin’s lawyer Viktor Ovsyannikov said he will appeal the “most severe” verdict, adding that “you can feel societal pressure” on the decision.
The landmark ruling is expected to be followed by others, with Ukraine opening thousands of war crimes cases since Moscow’s invasion.
International institutions are simultaneously investigating abuses allegedly committed by Russian forces in cities like Bucha and Mariupol, which have become emblematic of the destruction and suffering of the war.
As the verdict was read out in Kyiv, Zelensky continued his attempts to maintain Western support with a video address at the Davos summit, which this year is dominated by the fall-out of the war — and from which Russians have been barred.
In his speech, he revealed that 87 people were killed in a Russian attack earlier this month on a military base in northern Ukraine, in what would be one of the largest single recorded strikes of the war.
Ukraine, he said, “is paying dearly for freedom and independence and for this struggle”.
Zelensky insisted that tens of thousands of lives would have been saved if Kyiv had received “100 percent of our needs at once back in February”, when Russia invaded.
“This is why Ukraine needs all the weapons that we ask (for), not just the ones that have been provided,” said Zelensky, flanked by Ukrainian flags and wearing an olive-green T-shirt.
He also called for an oil embargo on Russia, punitive measures against all its banks and the shunning of its IT sector, adding that all foreign companies should leave the country.
After failing in its initial goal of capturing Kyiv, Moscow’s forces are now squarely focused on securing and expanding their gains in the Donbas region and on Ukraine’s southern coast.
In the eastern city of Severodonetsk, a focus of recent fighting, regional governor Sergiy Gaiday accused Russian forces of “using scorched-earth tactics, deliberately destroying” the city.
Gaiday said Russia was repositioning forces from the Kharkiv region, others involved in Mariupol’s siege, pro-Russian separatist militias, and even troops freshly mobilised from Siberia to concentrate their firepower on the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.
More than six million people have fled Ukraine and eight million have been internally displaced since the war broke out, according to the United Nations.
For the civilians left behind near the front, prayer is often the only comfort left.
Southwest of Severodonetsk, in the city of Bakhmut, Maria Mayashlapak scanned the devastation of her home, where a missile imploded her kitchen and cratered her vegetable garden.
“I was reciting my morning prayer for God to keep me from getting hurt,” the 82-year-old recalled, as the family’s kitten mewed from somewhere in the rubble.
Zelensky’s wife, Olena Zelenska, warned at the World Health Organisation’s annual assembly that the mental health effects of Russia’s war could last for decades.
“Following what Ukrainians have experienced during the occupation, at the front, in bomb shelters, under shelling… they need rehabilitation in the same way as those who are physically wounded,” she said.
Sunday’s bombardment of the Donetsk region killed at least seven civilians and wounded eight others, according to the Ukrainian army.
The effects of the war are also being felt far beyond Ukraine, particularly the impact of a Russian blockade that has left one of the world’s breadbaskets unable to export its grain.
“It’s savagery for one country to have food spoiling like this and for other people to be left poor and hungry,” said Dmitriy Matulyak, a farmer near the Black Sea port of Odessa.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week that the war “threatens to tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity”.