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WORLD | 18-05-2022 16:52

Russian soldier pleads guilty as Ukraine holds first war crimes trial

A 21-year-old Russian soldier on Wednesday pleaded guilty to the murder of a Ukrainian civilian, as Kyiv began its first war crimes trial after nearly three months of war.

A 21-year-old Russian soldier on Wednesday pleaded guilty to the cold-blooded murder of a Ukrainian civilian, as Kyiv began a judicial reckoning for alleged atrocities after nearly three months of war.

Ukraine's first trial for war crimes since Russia invaded on February 24 came as President Vladimir Putin was forced to also reckon with the prospect of NATO vastly expanding its reach on his borders.

Abandoning decades of non-alignment, Finland and Sweden formally submitted a joint application to join the military alliance at its headquarters in Brussels.

US President Joe Biden expressed strong backing for the two NATO applications and offered US support in the event of "aggression" during the application process.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the applications would not have been expected a short time ago, "but Putin's appalling ambitions have transformed the geopolitical contours of our continent."

The applications face resistance from NATO member Turkey, which accuses the Nordic neighbours of harbouring anti-Turkish extremists. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded "respect" from NATO over his government's concerns.

But Western allies remain optimistic they can overcome Turkey's objections. For now, several including Britain have offered security guarantees to Finland and Sweden to guard against any Russian aggression.

On the ground, in Ukraine's ruined port city of Mariupol, more than 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers including senior commanders remained inside the besieged Azovstal steel plant, a pro-Russian separatist leader said.

Moscow said that 959 of the troops had surrendered this week.


'Beyond normal'

Kyiv's Defence Ministry said it would do "everything necessary" to rescue the personnel still in the sprawling plant's tunnels but admitted there was no military option available.

Those who have left Azovstal were taken into Russian captivity, including 80 who were heavily wounded, the Russian Defence Ministry said.

The ministry, which published images showing soldiers on stretchers, said the injured were transported to a hospital in the eastern Donetsk region controlled by pro-Kremlin rebels.

TheDefence Ministry in Kyiv said it was hoping for an "exchange procedure... to repatriate these Ukrainian heroes as quickly as possible."

But their fate was unclear, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refusing to say whether they would be treated as criminals or prisoners of war.

Putin had "guaranteed that they would be treated according to the relevant international laws," Peskov said.

Russia's alleged disregard for international law has played out in Ukraine with accusations — including mass rape and massacres — that are under investigation also by international bodies.

Peskov accused Kyiv of a "complete lack of will" towards peace talks, after Ukrainian negotiator Mykhaylo Podolyak said stop-start dialogue was "on hold," having failed to yield any breakthroughs.


'Clear signal'

Vadim Shishimarin, a shaven-headed sergeant from Irkutsk in Siberia, is expected to be the first of many prosecuted by Ukraine itself. He faces a life sentence after his guilty plea in a cramped Kyiv courtroom.

"By this first trial, we are sending a clear signal that every perpetrator, every person who ordered or assisted in the commission of crimes in Ukraine shall not avoid responsibility," prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova said.

Russia's government has no information on the soldier, Peskov said, adding that many such cases reported by Ukraine are "simply fake or staged."

Shishimarin admitted to a war crime in shooting dead an unarmed 62-year-old man in Ukraine's Sumy region four days into the invasion, as the man rode a bicycle.

The International Criminal Court is deploying its largest-ever field team to Ukraine, with 42 investigators, forensic experts and support staff being sent into the field to gather evidence of alleged war crimes.

The US State Department also announced it was creating a special unit to research, document and publicise Russian war crimes.

The United States on Wednesday also reopened its embassy in Kyiv, after closing it for three months due to the Russian invasion.

"The Ukrainian people, with our security assistance, have defended their homeland in the face of Russia's unconscionable invasion, and, as a result, the Stars and Stripes are flying over the embassy once again," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.


'My war is not over'

The Kremlin intensified a tit-for-tat round of diplomatic expulsions against European countries, ordering out dozens of personnel from France, Italy and Spain.

Despite their last-ditch resistance in places such as Mariupol, and their successful defence of Kyiv, Ukrainian forces are retreating across swathes of the eastern front.

White smoke from burning fields marks the pace of Russia's advance around the village of Sydorove, on the approaches to the militarily important city of Slovyansk and Ukraine's eastern administrative centre in Kramatorsk.

Meanwhile top EU officials urged member states to be ambitious in helping Ukraine rebuild after the war, including through possible joint borrowing to cover the massive costs.

"There is a time, sooner or later, when we will have to look at funding on a European scale as we did for Covid," said Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, at a press conference in Brussels.

by Charlotte Plantive, Dmitry Zaks, and Max Delany, AFP

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