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War-time justice comes to Kyiv

A Russian soldier stands in the dock accused of a war crime even as the fighting continues.

Russian army Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, 21, is seen behind a glass barrier during a court hearing in Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 13. The trial of the Russian soldier, accused of killing a Ukrainian civilian, opened Friday, the first war crimes trial since Moscow's invasion of its neighbor.Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press

He is this war’s “man in a glass booth,” a 21-year-old Russian soldier, the first to go on trial for war crimes committed during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Unlike Adolf Eichmann, who indeed sat in a glass booth while on trial in Israel nearly two decades after the crimes he committed during the Holocaust, Sergeant Vadim Shysimarin faces judgement even as the war continues to rage in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions.

Even the Nuremberg trials didn’t begin until World War II had ended.

But this war is being broadcast to the world in real time, and Ukrainian prosecutors have taken the position that justice can’t wait. They are right.


There is, in fact, much to be gained by proving to the world — beyond a reasonable doubt — that this war isn’t being fought merely on battlefields but also on the streets and in the neighborhoods of ordinary civilians, that Russian thuggery isn’t confined to combat. That is the textbook definition of a war crime. And in prosecuting suspected war criminals even as the conflict continues, instead of simply meting out retribution, Ukraine provides further evidence that it is a nation where the rule of law still matters.

So Shysimarin, a member of a tank division from the Moscow region, made his first appearance in a Kyiv courtroom last Friday, protected by the glass box. Accused of killing an unarmed 62-year-old man who was riding a bicycle in the village of Chupakhivka, some 200 miles east of Kyiv, he pleaded guilty on Wednesday.

According to prosecutors, Shysimarin was one of five soldiers who, while fleeing Ukrainian forces, stole a car at gunpoint and drove into the village. Shysimarin was accused of firing a gun out the car window, shooting the man in the head in an apparent effort to keep him from reporting the Russian soldiers’ whereabouts. The victim’s body was left by the side of the road a few dozen yards from his home. Prosecutors say they are able to trace the Kalashnikov rifle used in the attack to Shysimarin, who faces 10 to 15 years in prison.


His Ukrainian court-appointed attorney, Viktor Ovsyannikov, told The New York Times, “It is very important to make sure my client’s human rights are protected, to show that we are a country different to [sic] the one he is from.”

And that too is part of what Ukraine has set out to prove.

The office of Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova has said it is investigating more than 11,000 possible war crimes committed by Russian forces and has identified more than 600 suspects.

A second trial, this one in absentia, of Mikhail Romanov, a Russian soldier accused of rape and murder, is also scheduled for a hearing in a Kyiv court this week. He is accused of breaking into a house in March in a village near Kyiv, murdering a man and then repeatedly raping his wife and “threatening her and her underage child with violence and weapons.”

Such appalling crimes are not outliers or anomalies in Vladimir Putin’s army. Each new day brings news of a new atrocity, a new killing field. Of the estimated 1,000 civilians killed in the Bucha region during its month-long occupation by Russian forces, investigators now believe some 650 of those were executed, many of them on the grounds of a former children’s summer camp, Camp Radiant. Police, prosecutors, and forensic teams continue to gather evidence of the crimes committed there and of the perpetrators who left behind evidence of their identities.


It is painstaking and heartbreaking work. That it is taking place even as the shelling continues in other parts of the country is further evidence that Ukrainian officials aren’t waiting for a victory — whatever victory may mean in what is turning into a far longer war than most Western nations ever anticipated. And they aren’t waiting for judgments from some international tribunal — although those, too, are entirely likely in the future.

How far into the future? Well, the European Court of Human Rights is still pondering several cases related to the 2014 shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over the contested Donbas region, killing all 298 people on board. Evidence points to the missile used having been transported from a Russian military base. The court may have a decision on one of those cases in the fall.

Clearly, that is not the kind of swift and sure justice that either Ukraine or its allies in the international community believe is adequate to the current growing list of atrocities. The trial of low-ranking soldiers like Vadim Shysimarin may well set a standard for the pace and the fairness of war crimes cases to come — that is, until the man at the head of Russia’s wartime criminal enterprise can be brought to justice himself.


Editor’s Note: This editorial has been updated to reflect Vadim Shysimarin’s guilty plea on Wednesday.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.