Past 20 years were a whole life for Vadim Shishimarin. He was a baby when Vladimir Putin came to power; he doesn’t know any other Russia except Putin’s. They never met, nor would their paths ever intersect. Their destinies, however, did. The verdict of the Ukrainian court, according to which Shishimarin will spend the rest of his life in prison for a war crime, is an event that can have a huge impact on the further course of Russian aggression against Ukraine, and even mark its turning point.
Sentencing for war crimes is not common during a conflict. It is difficult to believe in its fairness and objectivity at that time, and it can close the door for the exchange of prisoners of war. In the case of Sergeant Shishimarin, the emotions and pressure of the public overcame the law, because he was sentenced to life imprisonment, although a sentence of up to ten years in prison is prescribed for violating the rules and customs of war. But that will remain his private problem. International activists and organizations will not defend the rights of the convicted Russian soldier, nor will foreign governments protest. Why would they, when his state will not save him, the one that sent him to war under the slogan “We do not leave our own”. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov is just “concerned about the fate of the Russian citizen”.
According to the logic of the war, the verdict against Shishimarin had to be draconian, because it was the first. Its essence is in the message that the convict’s comrades-in-arms, their commanders and the chiefs of those commanders should hear. And that message is ruthless – you are at war and you can die, as you have already seen, and even if you survive, you can be sentenced to life in prison. The threat is real.
According to the Washington Post, about 50,000 investigators from five security agencies are gathering information to build indictments for war crimes, starting with ordinary soldiers and then going to the top of the Russian state and its President Putin personally. This army of investigators destroys the morale of the invaders, just like the armed Ukrainian army with which they fight from day to day. It is there to reduce, to a minimum, the options of Russian soldiers, their commanders and their bosses that they will get out of this war alive or unpunished.
It is possible that not everyone on the battle line heard about the fate of their comrade Shishimarin from the Fourth Guards Tank Division, because such news is more dangerous than a bullet. However, another trial of two Russian soldiers for bombing civilian targets in the Kharkiv region is underway, the verdict will be harsh again, and even more Russian soldiers will find out about it. Each subsequent process will leave less and less uninformed in the Russian ranks, but therefore more and more worried and demoralized.
The first verdict for a war crime against one Russian has not only military significance and its effect is not expected only on the battlefield, although it is a priority for Ukraine at this time. With this process, and even with the verdict, the war in Ukraine is entering the phase of its epilogue, no matter how long it lasts. By prosecuting an aggressor soldier, even in wartime conditions, Ukraine shows its intention to fight against the uncivilized invasion of its territory and population with the achievements of civilization, such as the court and law.
Shishimarin’s verdict is the first, and we will wait for the last one for years, long after the end of the war. Without such actions, Russian aggression against Ukraine cannot have its civilizational epilogue. This is well known in the Balkans. The verdicts handed down by the International Tribunal in The Hague and, to a lesser extent, national courts over the crimes committed in the 1990s war marked the historic end of these conflicts, in a way that was possible with the means offered by law.
The verdicts did not bring reconciliation among the once warring nations, nor will the Ukrainian and international verdicts against Russian aggressors bring reconciliation, but civilization, for now, does not recognize a different epilogue. It is possible that trials for crimes in Ukraine will not bring justice to victims, just as trials for crimes in the Balkans did not punish all war criminals. But it was important to demonstrate the strength of the law and to warn everyone that the law must be obeyed, even in the bloodiest wars, such as the Balkan wars or the one in Ukraine today.
That was also the idea of the Nuremberg Trials. Not only in the punishment of war criminals, but also to determine, in detail, the truth about the committed crimes, for the whole world to know.
No leader of an armed campaign can be calm as long as such actions exist, none of the war commanders will take action without a fear that one day they will appear before a court as defendants.
That is why the trial and verdict of Sergeant Shishimarin are, in part, the trial of Vladimir Putin. If he already uses international legal situations as precedents for his actions, as he uses Kosovo as a justification for the annexation of Crimea and the military occupation of Donbas, Putin should know that the same international law recognizes war crimes. If, due to the feeling of power and invincibility, he resorted to international law as a “buffet”, to choose only what suits him, then that is a big mistake. The events in the Balkans in the last few decades should remind him of that.
It is not excluded that Putin and Russia will respond to the Ukrainian trials in the same way, by prosecuting Ukrainians for alleged crimes in Donetsk and Luhansk. But it will be just theater, with no consequences in real life. Even for such ideas, there is a parallel in the Balkans, when Serbia under Slobodan Milošević organized trials of Western leaders, from Bill Clinton to Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair and Madeleine Albright, charged with war crimes during the 1999 bombing. This legal farce had no practical effect, but all the trials that took place in The Hague had an effect, even the one that remained unfinished – the trial of Slobodan Milošević. No one went to prison from the Belgrade courtroom, but about eighty from The Hague Tribunal did, for a total of more than a thousand years in prison.
The killing and destruction of Ukraine will stop one day, but the true end of the war will come when the judges say so in their verdicts, either in Ukraine or before an international tribunal. Unfortunately, the verdict against Sergeant Shishimarin will not mark the end of the Russian aggression, but it undoubtedly marked the beginning of that end in the only way in which civilization ends the wars in which it is attacked.