A Russian soldier was sentenced to life in prison Monday for killing an unarmed Ukrainian civilian in the first war crimes trial since Moscow's invasion began three months ago.
The verdict, which caps days of proceedings in a Kyiv courtroom, could set the stage for a string of other prosecutions for allegations of atrocities committed by Russian forces during the conflict.
Sgt. Vadim Shyshimarin, 21, pleaded guilty to violating the laws and customs of war under a section of the Ukrainian criminal code after he admitted to shooting an unarmed 62-year-old man in the head in a village in northeastern Ukraine in the early days of the war.
The verdict takes effect in 30 days, and it can be appealed during that period. The soldier, a member of a tank unit, will remain in custody.
The case drew international attention amid mounting allegations of war crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine, some of which have been documented by international human rights organizations. Ukraine has launched a massive effort to prosecute the alleged war crimes on its territory, and both the International Criminal Court and the United Nations have set out separate inquiries.
The attention on the case also highlights its unusual nature, involving a captured soldier’s being tried in the middle of the war in the country his armed forces invaded.
Wearing a blue and gray prison tracksuit with his head shaved, Shyshimarin looked subdued throughout the trial as he sat in a glass booth separating him from the rest of the courtroom. He had a translator to help him interpret the proceedings, which were conducted in Ukrainian, through a narrow opening in his booth.
During witness testimony, he stood with his hands behind his back and his head bowed to hear the translator.
He said in court Thursday that he took the deadly shot under pressure from officers. He initially disobeyed his commanding officer’s order to shoot the unarmed civilian, he said, but he ultimately complied when another one repeated the command. He said what he did was “unacceptable,” and he pleaded for forgiveness from the victim’s wife.
His defense argued that the officers who he said pressured him to carry out the order and their higher-ups should be in the dock, not Shyshimarin.
In announcing the verdict Monday, the presiding judge said Shyshimarin was well aware that the victim was a civilian and did not have to carry out what he called “a criminal order" to shoot him.
Even though Shyshimarin pleaded guilty Wednesday, he had a full trial, with the court examining evidence and hearing from the victim’s wife, Shyshimarin himself and several other witnesses.
Experts said it was pivotal for Ukraine to lay out the evidence for the Ukrainian public and the world to see.
“I think for them it’s important to try to establish not just guilt but also to establish what has happened,” said Dapo Akande, an international law professor at the University of Oxford. “They’re trying to create a sort of historical narrative that ‘this is what happened, and we want to show the world that this is what happened.’”
Shyshimarin’s case will likely set the stage for Ukraine to prosecute more war crimes cases in the future, Akande said.
“I would imagine that Ukraine would consider this to be the first of a number of trials, which they would hope to hold over the next few years. And it will be years, I think,” he said.
Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said this month that there were more than 11,000 ongoing war crimes cases in Ukraine, with 40 suspects already identified.
With the Shyshimarin trial, she said, Ukraine is sending “a clear signal that every perpetrator, every person who ordered or assisted in the commission of crimes in Ukraine, shall not avoid responsibility.”
The Kremlin has tried to distance itself from Shyshimarin’s case, saying it did not have much information about the proceedings and that it had “very limited” ability to provide him with any assistance. It has called any suggestion that Russian troops have committed war crimes in Ukraine “unacceptable.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that Moscow was concerned about Shyshimarin’s fate, the Interfax news agency reported, and that it will look for options "to protect his interests."
While the circumstances of the trial are unusual, experts said, there was nothing wrong with Ukraine’s process.
“A prisoner of war cannot be prosecuted for a lawful act of war,” said William Schabas, an international law professor at Middlesex University in London. “But he is being prosecuted for a war crime.”
Akande said that while Shyshimarin is a low-level soldier, moving forward with his trial now could help establish a lot of the jurisprudence and principles around future war crimes cases from the conflict, as was the case in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.