By ELENA BECATOROS, OLEKSANDR STASHEVSKYI and RICARDO MAZALAN
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – An imprisoned Russian soldier who pleaded guilty to killing a civilian was Monday sentenced by a Ukrainian court to life imprisonment – the maximum – amid signs that the Kremlin may in turn try some fighters who surrendered at the Mariupol steel mill.
Meanwhile, in a rare public display of opposition to the war from the ranks of Russia’s elite, a veteran Kremlin diplomat resigned and sent a damning letter to foreign colleagues saying of the invasion: “Never have I been so ashamed of my country as on February 24.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also called for “maximum” sanctions against Russia in a video address to world leaders and executives at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He also revealed one of the deadliest single attacks of the war, a rocket attack on a village near Kiev that killed nearly 90 people.
And on the battlefield, fierce fighting raged in the Donbas to the east, where Moscow’s troops have stepped up their bombardment. Cities not under Russian control were under constant shelling, and a Ukrainian official said Russian forces targeted civilians trying to flee.
In the first of what could be a multitude of war crimes trials being held by Ukraine, Russian Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, 21, was convicted of the murder of a 62-year-old man who was shot in the head in the early days of the war in a village in the northeastern Sumy region.
Shishimarin, a member of a tank unit, had alleged that he was following orders, and he apologized to the man’s widow in court.
His Ukraine-appointed lawyer, Victor Ovsyanikov, claimed his client was unprepared for the “violent military confrontation” and the massive casualties Russian troops suffered when they invaded. He said he would appeal.
Ukrainian civil liberties campaigner Volodymyr Yavorskyy said it was “an extremely harsh sentence for one murder during the war”. But Aarif Abraham, a UK-based human rights lawyer, said the trial was conducted “with what appears to be a full and fair trial”, including access to a lawyer.
Ukrainian prosecutors investigate thousands of possible war crimes. Russian troops in Mariupol bombed a theater where civilians were hiding and hit a maternity hospital. In the wake of Moscow’s withdrawal from Kiev weeks ago, mass graves were discovered and streets littered with bodies in cities like Bucha.
Before Shishimarin’s sentencing, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was unable to defend the soldier but will consider doing so “through other channels”.
Mary Ellen O’Connell, an international law expert at the University of Notre Dame, said that trying Shishimarin “could be extremely harmful to Ukrainian soldiers at the hands of Russia”. She said Russia could decide to hold “show trials” against Ukrainians to boost the morale of its own soldiers and spread misinformation.
“Maybe it would have happened without the Ukrainians going to trial,” O’Connell said. “But the timing suggests that the Ukrainians should have held back, and perhaps still should, so that the Russians can’t say, ‘We’re just doing to their soldiers what they did to ours.'”
Russian authorities have threatened to hold trials against detained Ukrainians, namely fighters who held out at the shattered Mariupol steel factory, the last stronghold of resistance in the strategic southern port city. They surrendered and were captured last week, after which Moscow claimed the capture of Mariupol was complete.
Russia’s main investigative body said it plans to question the Mariupol defenders to “identify the nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians.
Russian authorities seized on the far-right ancestry of one of the regiments there, called the fighters of the Azov regiment “Nazis” and accused their commander of “countless atrocities” without evidence. Russia’s top prosecutor has asked the country’s Supreme Court to classify the Azov regiment as a terrorist organization.
Relatives of the fighters have argued for their eventual return to Ukraine as part of a prisoner swap.
Elsewhere, Boris Bondarev, an experienced Russian diplomat at the UN office in Geneva, resigned and sent a letter denouncing the “aggressive war unleashed” by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Bondarev told The Associated Press: “It is unacceptable what my government is doing now.”
In his letter, Bondarev said that those who conceived the war “want only one thing: to remain in power forever, to live in pompous tasteless palaces, to sail on yachts comparable in tonnage and cost to the entire Russian navy, unlimited power and enjoy complete impunity.”
He also said that Russia’s foreign ministry is all about “warmongering, lies and hatred”.
At the Davos forum, Zelenskyy said sanctions against the Kremlin should go further. He called for an embargo on Russian oil, a complete shutdown of trade and a withdrawal of foreign companies from the country.
“This is what sanctions should be: they should be maximum so that Russia and any other potential aggressor who wants to wage a brutal war against its neighbor would clearly know the immediate consequences of their actions,” Zelenskyy said, receiving a standing ovation. †
In other developments, nearly 50 defense leaders from around the world met Monday and agreed to send more advanced weapons to Ukraine, including missiles to protect the coast, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters in Washington.
On the battlefield, Russian troops stepped up their bombardment of the Donbas, the eastern industrial heart of coal mines and factories that Russia wants to conquer.
Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said three civilians were killed in Russian attacks there on Monday and heavy fighting continues near the Luhansk region. The Donbas consists of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
He said the Russians were decimating cities in their attempt to take them over. Only about 320,000 people of the region’s pre-war population of 1.6 million remain, and Russian forces are focusing on evacuation efforts, he said.
“They’re killing us. They are killing the locals during the evacuation,” Kyrylenko said.
On the eve of the three-month anniversary of the start of the war, Zelensky said four rockets killed 87 people last week in the city of Desna, 55 kilometers (34 miles) north of Kiev. The dead were counted after the rubble was cleared, he said.
The Russians have now concentrated their forces on Donbas cities and are “trying to destroy all life,” Zelenskyy said in his evening address to the nation.
In the Luhansk region, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, local authorities reported that a bridge leading to the administrative center of Sievierodonetsk had been destroyed, leaving the partially enclosed city accessible by only one road.
Some who fled the Donetsk region shared their suffering.
“We haven’t been able to see the sun for three months. We’re almost blind because we’ve been in the dark for three months,” said Rayisa Rybalko, who hid with her family first in their basement and then in an air raid shelter at a school before fleeing their village of Novomykhailivka. “The world should have seen that.”
Her son-in-law Dmytro Khaliapin said heavy artillery stormed the village. “Houses are being destroyed,” he says. “It’s an abomination.”
Becatoros reported from Kramatorsk, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Danica Kirka in London and other AP employees around the world contributed.
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