Russian soldier pleads guilty in first Ukraine war crimes trial since invasion

A Russian tank commander has pleaded guilty to shooting dead a civilian on a bicycle, in Ukraine’s first trial for war crimes committed during the Russian invasion.

Vadim Shysimarin, 21, sat emotionless as prosecutors detailed charges that he had fired his AK-47 at a 62 year-old man from the window of a car in the north-eastern Sumy region in late February.

His commander allegedly told him to kill the man, an unarmed civilian, because he worried the victim might give away the position of Russian forces.

The court, presided over by three judges, will still hear testimony from witnesses including the victim’s wife and another Russian soldier who was in the car with Shysimarin, before confirming the verdict and handing down a sentence.

Prosecutors have moved fast. It is extremely unusual to hold a trial while a conflict is still ongoing, and unprecedented to do it within weeks. The victim was shot dead less than three months ago, in the first days after the invasion.

Ukrainian authorities say justice for atrocities committed by Russian forces is a priority, with investigators at times even risking their lives in areas still laced with mines or threatened by Russian forces to collect evidence that could help secure convictions.

They have the support of several teams of international investigators and forensic experts, but face a mammoth task. Hundreds of civilians were killed just in the parts of Ukraine that have been liberated from Russian forces, and dozens of rapes have been reported.

Already Ukraine’s prosector general has registered more than 11,000 war crimes, which have included attacks on hospitals. Large swathes of Ukrainian territory are still under Russian control, so the toll is expected to rise considerably if those areas can be reached.

Shysimarin, who comes from Ust Illyinsk in the south-east Irkutsk region of Russia, was a commander of the Kantemirovskaya tank division at the time of the killing, which happened on 28 February in Chupakhivka village.

Prosecutors say he shot at a car after his convoy came under attack from Ukrainian forces, then stole the car and drove it away with four other soldiers. He then used an AK-47 to shoot the unarmed man, just a few dozen metres from his home.

The man was speaking on his phone and Shysimarin was ordered “to kill a civilian so he would not report them to Ukrainian defenders”, according to prosecutors.

One of the few precedents for holding a trial while a war is still raging comes from the Balkans. A Bosnian Serb soldier, Borislav Herak, was captured by Bosnian army soldiers, put on trial for 35 killings and 14 rapes, and convicted of genocide and crimes against civilians.

Senad Kreho, who was president of a district military tribunal in Sarajevo in 1993, said the legal system functioned fairly even though the war was still ongoing. “Numerous subsequent reviews of [Herak’s] case by international and national legal experts found that he was given a fair trial,” Kreho told the Associated Press.

Two further unnamed soldiers are expected to have a first hearing within days on allegations they used a Soviet truck-mounted 122mm multiple rocket launcher to shell homes and civilian buildings in Kharkiv district.

Another case will be heard in absentia shortly. A soldier named as Mikhail Romanov is accused of rape and murder.

Artem Mazhulin contributed reporting