Almost 60 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson swore that his escalation of the US intervention in the distant Cold War battlefields of South-East Asia (which had been instigated by his prematurely-retired predecessor in the White House) was not one in which civilians were deliberately being targeted; LBJ claimed the upsurge in American bombing raids over North Vietnam was a calculated attempt to target industry and military installations, thus weakening the Soviet-backed Viet Cong. If the civilian population happened to get in the way, it was a pure accident and not intentional. Ever since, this has been the justification mantra of all Western leaders engaged in overseas conflicts whenever the subject of civilian casualties has been raised, though so successful has this tactic proven to be that even the likes of a world leader full of Eastern promise such as Vladimir Putin have adopted it as official protocol where opposition to foreign interventionism is concerned.
In order to vindicate his stance, Russia’s elected dictator has also cynically evoked a deep-rooted, romantic attachment to an ideal of the motherland that echoes everything from an ISIS recruitment manual to the IRA’s sentimental appeal to the displaced Irishmen of Boston and New York whenever it was time to produce the green-coloured begging bowl. Saving the Ukrainians from an enemy within – one bent on perverting the ancient ties between Ukraine and its invading ‘liberator’ – seems to be the Russian excuse to justify any number of war crimes as recognised by international standards. However, that ‘enemy within’ has learnt its lessons and has taken the opportunity to capitalise on global revulsion to Putin’s war machine by going through the war trial motions a long way from The Hague. A hastily-convened tribunal in Ukraine has judged a 21-year-old captured Russian tank commander, name of Sgt Vadim Shishimarin, as being guilty of murdering a civilian and has imposed a life sentence upon him.
Sgt Shishimarin has been convicted of the murder of a 62-year-old Ukrainian called Oleksandr Shelipov in the village of Chupakhivak back in February, and his defence (for what it was) fell back on the old Nazi excuse of ‘only obeying orders’ to highlight the unique conditions of wartime. The Kremlin’s response to this judgement has been to issue the threat that Ukrainian prisoners will receive equal treatment when tried as war criminals in Moscow, placing an ongoing conflict in the dirty hands of a legal profession hardly guaranteed to deliver justice when demands for a specific verdict will be overwhelming. The spur for Russia to engage in judicial tit-for-tat came via the judge at the trial of Sgt Vadim Shishimarin, who proclaimed ‘Given that the crime committed is a crime against peace, security, humanity and the international legal order, the court does not see the possibility of imposing a shorter sentence of imprisonment.’
At a time when the world’s focus – or the focus of the world online – appears to be fixed on a courtroom spat between a pair of overpaid and unsympathetic Hollywood planks, the first war trial of anyone involved in the current Ukrainian skirmish has come as a sobering contrast to the self-indulgent and highly public marriage guidance counselling of Tinsel Town; yet the trial of Sgt Shishimarin has had its own moments of drama shaming the simultaneous acting class being acted out by Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. During the televised trial, the widow of the man Sgt Shishimarin has been found guilty of murdering confronted her husband’s killer and asked him why his presence had even been necessary in her country to begin with. ‘Tell me please,’ she demanded, ‘why did you come here – to protect us? Protect us from whom? Did you protect me from my husband, whom you killed?’
Sgt Shishimarin’s story was that he and several of his soldiers had requisitioned a vehicle when separated from their Kantemirovskaya tank regiment in north-east Ukraine; upon sighting the unfortunate Mr Shelipov, Shishimarin was pressurised by his fellow troops to open fire with an assault rifle, an action he was reluctant to carry out and twice refused; on the third asking, he did indeed shoot, which resulted in the death of an apparently unarmed Oleksandr Shelipov on his doorstep. If Shishimarin’s version of events is to believed, it’s evident he was an extremely young man plunged into the kind of nightmarish scenario it’s difficult to imagine the extremely young men of the privileged Western world reacting any better to, but none of this truth had any bearing on the verdict of the war crimes tribunal when it sentenced him to a life behind bars. Oleksandr Shelipov was just one of an estimated (by the UN) 3,838 civilians to have suffered a similar fate ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine three months ago, though his case was the first to have received the war crimes treatment and naturally sets an unedifying precedent for the months ahead.
The sorry story of Vadim Shishimarin paints a picture of raw recruits thrown into the deep end and faced with life-or-death decisions their limited life experience has barely prepared them for. Even Shishimarin’s defence lawyer claimed that his client had received no orders from his superiors, nor from the Russian Embassy in Kyiv, which has shut up shop anyway. One imagines Russian units manned by novices and left to their own devices as Putin’s platoons venture so far from Moscow that communication has been all-but abandoned; the anticipated quick ‘n’ easy victory has not materialised and Russian troops have continued to plough on, faced with a virtual guerrilla war that none of them are old enough to recall their forefathers capitulating to in Afghanistan. If one were to travel even further back in the timeline of military history especially sensitive to that corner of the world, one might evoke the equally green German soldiers drafted in to fight a losing battle on the Eastern Front during 1943-45, with only a parade ground pat on the head from the Fuhrer to send them on their doomed way.
Sgt Shishimarin pleaded guilty to the murder of Oleksandr Shelipov, a Ukrainian citizen responding to the invasion of his country like thousands of his countrymen by opposing it in thought if not in deed; the accused didn’t deny the crime, but argued it was carried out in circumstances specific to the theatre of war and under extreme pressure from commanders entrusting boys to do the work of men. Whilst Kremlin denials continue unabated, the Ukraine authorities are eager for the trial of Sgt Shishimarin not to be viewed as a show trial staged in the middle of a war still in full swing and are consequently assembling evidence of upwards of 11,000 alleged war crimes on the part of Russia with a future veritable festival of tribunals in mind that will at least be under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
How many genuine war crimes committed during the Second World War were recognised as such either at the time or in the immediate aftermath of is disputable; it can amount to years, if not decades, for the truth to emerge, and even then the truth can routinely come too late for justice to be enacted. It took the best part of fifteen years, for example, before Adolf Eichmann stood trial in Israel, yet the pursuit of suspected Nazi war criminals was still going on until relatively recently, however decrepit the accused had become by the 21st century. Ukraine appears to have started the process far earlier than is the custom, though one cannot help but feel the actual instigator of the conflict that the likes of Sgt Shishimarin are the patsies of will evade justice – and, unlike the name of a 21-year-old tank commander, we all know it.
© The Editor