Kyiv is holding out hope for a prisoner swap to bring home fighters who long held their ground in Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant, a final holdout before Russia finalized its capture of the city this week in a negotiated surrender. Russian officials cast doubt Wednesday on any possibility of an exchange.
The push for a swap came as a 21-year-old Russian soldier in Ukrainian custody pleaded guilty to killing a civilian before a Kyiv court on Wednesday during the first trial on war crimes charges in the conflict, according to Ukraine’s public broadcaster Suspilne.
Russia said nearly 1,000 Ukrainian fighters had so far exited the plant in Mariupol. The Washington Post could not immediately verify the claim. At least 260 fighters, many seriously wounded and lying on stretchers, ended their weeks-long defense of the besieged facility on Monday as Kyiv announced the end of the battle there.
While Ukraine said delicate evacuation talks were ongoing, uncertainty loomed over the fighters’ fate. Details about the terms of their surrender remained under wraps, but Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk had indicated they would be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war once “their condition stabilizes.”
It’s unclear how many still remain at the plant, which provided shelter for Ukrainian forces including from the Azov Regiment, a militia with far-right ties. Ukrainian authorities have previously said that nearly 1,000 fighters were inside. An earlier agreement allowed for the rescue of civilians.
A video shared by Russia’s defense ministry on Wednesday appeared to show a column of Ukrainian fighters marching in Mariupol on a road littered with debris. They were greeted by Russian soldiers before being allowed to board buses. Some soldiers from Ukraine appeared to have been injured. The date the video was taken could not be confirmed by the Post.
Russia advanced into most of Mariupol over weeks, after a prolonged siege and shelling. The port city on the Sea of Azov helps secure a strategic land bridge from the Russian border to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014.
The Kremlin has described the exit of the fighters from Mariupol as a victory. Civilians who made it out of the plant this month recounted surviving the siege in a bunker without sunlight, as food and water supplies shrank.
Before the evacuation, Moscow may have created expectations that Russian forces would destroy the outgunned Ukrainian forces in Mariupol, according to analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.
On Wednesday, a separatist leader in eastern Ukraine, whose forces are fighting alongside Moscow, said a court should decide the fate of fighters, including “those who appear to be nationalists,” according to a local news agency in the breakaway region. According to him, there was a plan to destroy the steel plant.
Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, also said the highest-level Ukrainian commanders had not yet left the plant.
His comments came after pushback from some Russian officials on the possibility of a swap. In Moscow, the speaker of the Russian State Duma, or lower house, Vyacheslav Volodin, said Tuesday that Ukrainian “Nazi criminals” should not be a part of an exchange. Russian investigators stated that they will interrogate Ukrainian troops about alleged crimes. Russian media reported that the prosecution general requested the top court of the country to declare the Azov Regiment a terrorist organization. When the Kremlin cast the war on Ukraine as a quest to “de-Nazify” the country, it was referring in part to the nationalist Azov Regiment.
Amnesty International on Tuesday warned that Russian characterizations of Ukrainian soldiers in the Mariupol area as “neo-Nazis” raises “serious concerns over their fate as prisoners of war.”
“Amnesty International has documented summary killings of captives by Russia-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine,” the organization said in a statement. “The soldiers who surrendered today must not meet the same fate.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin guaranteed the treatment of the Mariupol fighters would be “consistent with the respective international laws.”
International law requires that prisoners of war be treated humanely and protected from violence, intimidation, insults and “public curiosity.” After a conflict ends, prisoners should be repatriated swiftly.
Russia is party to the Geneva Conventions, which lay out those rules. Moscow doesn’t accept jurisdiction over the International Criminal Court. However, the court has the power to investigate and prosecute any events in Ukraine. According to Todd Buchwald (a George Washington University law professor and ex-head of the Office of Global Criminal Justice of the State Department), countries that have signed the Geneva Conventions are required to bring Russian officials to trial before their national courts for violating the law regarding prisoners of war.
Videos posted by the Russian defense ministry to its Telegram channel appear to show wounded soldiers in the hospital in Novoazovsk, a nearby town controlled by Russian-backed separatists where Russian officials said dozens of injured soldiers who evacuated the steel plant had been taken. The men speak Russian and say they’re being well treated.
Putting prisoners of war on camera could violate international law. Rights groups and legal experts criticized Ukraine earlier in the spring for filming dead and captured Russian soldiers.
Prisoner exchanges provide a way to bring detained soldiers home before the fighting stops. Russia and Ukraine have carried out several since the invasion began, including one this month that traded an unspecified number of Russian soldiers for 28 Ukrainian military personnel and 13 civilians in Russian custody, according to Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister.
As Kyiv negotiated for the fate of POWs held by Russia, it began the war’s first war crimes trial. Ukrainian prosecutors have accused Vadim Shishimarin, 21, a Russian soldier, of shooting and killing 62-year-old Oleksandr Shelipov in the northeastern Ukrainian region of Sumy in the first week of the war. According to the Ukrainian prosecutor general, he is being charged with “violating laws and customs in war coupled with premeditated killing”. He could be sentenced to life imprisonment.
The victim’s widow wiped away tears as Shishimarin was led into the courtroom in handcuffs on Wednesday, the BBC reported.
Shishimarin said he was following orders, but the prosecutor responded that the soldier who told him to kill Shelipov was not Shishimarin’s commander and that Shishimarin should have ignored him, according to the BBC. Legal experts say that obeying orders doesn’t absolve soldiers lower in rank of any responsibility.
Vadim Shishimarin has been brought to court for the start of his trial – accused of shooting a 62 year old civilian
The victim’s widow, sitting on the other side of the glass cage, wiped away tears as the Russian soldier was led in in handcuffs pic.twitter.com/hPhhU7ywzU
— Sarah Rainsford (@sarahrainsford) May 18, 2022
While prisoners of war cannot be prosecuted for taking part in hostilities, it is legal to put them on trial for war crimes. But the political calculation to hold such trials can be complicated, said William Schabas, an international law professor at Middlesex University in London — especially with Russia taking custody of hundreds of Ukrainian fighters from Mariupol.
The trial is expected to resume in Kyiv on Thursday and Shishimarin may testify, the office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general said. The Poltava will host a hearing on Thursday for a second case involving Russian military personnel accused of attacking civilian targets in Kharkiv.
The International Criminal Court and the United Nations have launched their own probes into potential war crimes and human rights abuses in Ukraine. Tuesday’s announcement by the ICC indicated that it had sent its largest ever deployment of investigators and forensic specialists to Ukraine. Others have offered their assistance in prosecuting Russian crimes.
Ukraine has opened more than 11,000 war crimes cases with 40 suspects, Iryna Venediktova, the chief prosecutor, wrote on Twitter. Schabas stated that the Ukrainian authorities have the ability to deal with these cases internally, as evidenced by the ongoing trials.
“There’s been a huge amount of interest in international prosecutions for war crimes, and what this seems to show is that Ukraine is capable of doing the prosecutions itself, through its own justice system,” Schabas said.
Annabelle Chapman, Robyn Dixon and Amar Nadhir contributed to this report.