“Why Did You Do This?” The Story Behind Ukraine’s First War-Crimes Trial

From a Wall Street Journal story by Ian Lovett headlined “‘Why Did You Do This?’ The Story Behind Ukraine’s First War-Crimes Trial”:

KYIV, Ukraine—The five Russian soldiers had just rounded a corner—fleeing the Ukrainian forces in a gray Volkswagen they had commandeered—when they spotted Oleksandr Shelipov. It was around 11 a.m. on Feb. 28, and he was on the road near his home in the village of Chupakhivka, about 200 miles from Kyiv, holding a cellphone.

An officer in the front seat told Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old tank-unit sergeant, to shoot.

Sgt. Shishimarin, seated behind the driver, hesitated, according to testimony in court from multiple witnesses.

Another soldier in the front began shouting at Sgt. Shishimarin, saying that if he didn’t shoot, the man would give away their position to the Ukrainians.

A burst of automatic fire leapt from Sgt. Shishimarin’s rifle.

Mr. Shelipov was struck in the head. He died on the spot, where his wife found him a few minutes later.

The events of that chaotic morning in Chupakhivka are now the subject of the most closely watched war-crimes trial in years.

This account, based on the testimony given by Sgt. Shishimarin, another Russian soldier, Mr. Shelipov’s widow and a neighbor of the Shelipovs during the weeklong trial, lays out the series of events that led to Mr. Shelipov’s death. Sgt. Shishimarin has been charged with premeditated murder and violating international laws of war.

His case is the first trial of a Russian soldier for war crimes since the invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24—and the first indication of how Ukraine will administer justice while the conflict is still ongoing.

A verdict is expected on Monday.

“The loss of my husband is everything,” Kateryna Shelipova, Mr. Shelipov’s widow, said in testimony last week. “He was my defender.”

Sgt. Shishimarin has admitted to killing Mr. Shelipov and said he would accept whatever sentence came down. “I sincerely repent,” he said in court. “I was under a lot of stress. I did not want to kill.” His lawyer has argued that he didn’t shoot with intent to kill, and is therefore not guilty of premeditated murder, the most serious of the charges he faces.

For the Russian forces of Sgt. Shishimarin’s unit, the day proved disastrous from the very start. The previous night, a member of their party had stepped on a stun grenade in their encampment in the Sumy region of northern Ukraine, and tankmen had fired in that direction in response, wounding four of their own soldiers, according to testimony from Ivan Maltisov, a private in Sgt. Shishimarin’s division.

In the morning, a five-vehicle convoy—a medical vehicle, two refueling trucks and two tanks at the front—was set up to bring the wounded men back to Russia. Both Sgt. Shishimarin and Mr. Maltisov were part of it.

After the convoy had traveled about 15 miles, it was hit by Ukrainian fire.

“A heavy shell dropped on the first car,” Mr. Maltisov said at the trial. “The first and the second car were immediately gone. Then everyone started jumping out.”

The survivors jumped down into a ditch along the roadside and began to retreat back the way they had come. They had made it nearly a mile when they saw a passenger car approaching, Mr. Maltisov said. A captain ordered the men to fire, and several of them began shooting.

When the soldiers reached the car, it was empty, and the captain ordered Sgt. Shishimarin to get in. He said he didn’t know how to drive, and a nearby soldier volunteered to get behind the wheel. Messrs. Shishimarin and Maltisov got in the back seat. An officer and another soldier (whose rank neither Messrs. Shishimarin nor Maltisov knew) sat in front, and a senior lieutenant got in the trunk, which was left hanging open.

As they drove about a third of a mile into Chupakhivka, the car made a loud grinding noise, and the soldiers realized the front left tire had been blown out, perhaps by their own fire. Then they turned left and spotted Mr. Shelipov.

Sgt. Shishimarin said the soldier in the front “turned around and started threatening me to shoot,” telling him that they were in danger and wouldn’t get back to the other Russian troops.

“I fired a short shot,” he said. “It was fast. I barely saw him.”

By Feb. 28, the residents of Chupakhivka were getting used to the military activity around them. Russian planes bombed a local sawmill and part of a sugar factory. On the night of Feb. 27, Ms. Shelipova said, tanks rolled down her usually quiet street. Ms. Shelipova, 61, spent the night in the cellar with some neighbors. Her husband, a tractor driver, stood guard outside, she told the courtroom.

Around 10 a.m. the next morning, her husband said he had heard that a tank had been blown up nearby, and he wanted to go take a look.

“I begged him not to go,” she said in court. “And he said, ‘everyone is going to have a look. I’ll go as well.’” He rode off on his bicycle.

Soon after he left, Ms. Shelipova heard gunshots, but they sounded far away and she continued with her chores. As she approached the well to get water, she heard a shot, this time much closer.

“I opened the gate and saw a car driving past and clattering,” she said. “It was this young man, the defendant, who was with the barrel of a machine gun as I opened the gate.” She closed the gate again and ducked behind a pillar.

Her neighbor, Igor Ivanovych Deikun, also heard the burst of automatic fire. He looked down the street to see the gray Volkswagen heading toward him at about 25 miles an hour, its blown-out tire howling against the pavement.

“I saw smoke coming from an automatic rifle that was pointing at the house where my neighbors, the Shelipovs, lived,” he said during the trial. The trunk was open. He saw the dark green Russian military uniforms as the car passed him, heading toward the lake at the center of the village.

Then he heard Ms. Shelipova screaming. As he approached, he saw she was pointing to where her husband’s body lay on the road. A large chunk of his skull was missing, Mr. Deikun recalled. Mr. Shelipov’s bicycle and phone lay next to him.

Neighbors brought a bed sheet to cover Mr. Shelipov, and they moved him onto a table in his yard. It was raining, and a plastic tarp was put over the bed sheet to keep him dry.

After shooting, Mr. Maltisov said, Sgt. Shishimarin was “wondering what it was all for, if he could have not obeyed the order.”

“He was scared,” he said. “He didn’t want to do it.”

The highest-ranking officer in the gray Volkswagen was the senior lieutenant, who was in the trunk. When he heard the shot, and saw Mr. Shelipov fall, Mr. Maltisov said, he asked, “Why did you do this?”

“He didn’t understand,” Mr. Maltisov said. Then the lieutenant ordered everyone in the car to put the safety of their rifles on.

The car kept clattering toward the bridge on its flat tire. As they crossed the bridge, another car came from the other direction. The officer got out of the front seat, stopped the other car, and pulled the driver out. The Russian soldiers got in and kept going.

As they reached the other side of the bridge, though, they came under fire again, this time from a group of local hunters, according to prosecutors at the trial. The soldier who had yelled at Sgt. Shishimarin to shoot was hit, and the car began drifting to the right. Then other soldiers jumped out—Messrs. Shishimarin and Maltisov through the trunk—and ran toward the woods, Mr. Maltisov recalled. The driver was still alive, but the senior lieutenant said they wouldn’t be able to save him. They left him on the bridge.

The four soldiers walked for much of the afternoon through partly frozen, swampy terrain. Eventually, they reached a pig farm, where the lieutenant said they should spend the night.

That evening, a guard who watches over the farm found the soldiers. The lieutenant spoke to him, promising not to do him any harm, Messrs. Shishimarin and Maltisov recalled in testimony.

After drying off near a stove, Sgt. Shishimarin said, he was sent to check on the guard and found he had left. Worried he would report them, the soldiers headed out into the woods.

“All night we walked through the fields,” Mr. Maltisov said at the trial. “Halfway past the village, the senior lieutenant saw a civilian on a bench. He waved to him and the civilian waved back.”

They approached him and surrendered, handing over their weapons and uniforms, “hoping to stay alive,” Sgt. Shishimarin said. “After that, we were taken away by the armed forces of Ukraine.”

The soldier shot on the bridge has died. The two other soldiers in the car were sent back to Russia more than a month ago as part of a prisoner exchange, according to Ukrainian prosecutors.

Sgt. Shishimarin’s fate will now be decided by a three-judge panel. Prosecutors have requested life in prison, the harshest possible penalty under Ukrainian law, noting that it wasn’t Sgt. Shishimarin’s commanding officer who told him to shoot. Ms. Shelipova said she would also like to see him in prison for life, though she would accept if he too were part of a prisoner exchange.

Sgt. Shishimarin, the eldest of five siblings, said he signed a military contract to help his parents. He said he was taught only the basics of international laws of war during his service.

He says he didn’t mean to kill Mr. Shelipov, but has offered little else in his own defense.

“I do not deny my actions,” Sgt. Shishimarin said. “I will understand anything you decide.”

Ian Lovett is the national religion reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He is based in Los Angeles. Prior to joining the Journal, he spent five years at the New York Times, where he covered the West Coast and major breaking news across the country.

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