Glimpse of Ukraine-Russia ties to come

Ukraine’s first war crimes trial of a Russian soldier shows why forgiveness may be needed for postwar reconciliation.

Russian Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin stands in court during a hearing in Kyiv, Ukraine, May 19.

Cheek by jowl as neighbors, Russia and Ukraine will someday need to live peacefully with each other again, perhaps even reconcile. In a courtroom this week, during the first war crimes trial held by Ukraine of a Russian soldier, the world caught a glimpse of how the two peoples might get to that point.

At the trial, a young Russian tank commander, Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, pleaded guilty to killing an unarmed older civilian during the early days of the invasion. He then asked Kateryna Shelipova, the widow of the man killed, for forgiveness.

“But I understand you won’t be able to forgive me,” he added.

His apparent repentance was enough to encourage the widow to engage the perpetrator. She asked about his motives but held off forgiving him. She later said she was sorry for him and endorsed the prosecutor’s request for a life sentence.

The dialogue was almost as if the two planned to live side by side – eventually. Ukrainian officials have lined up dozens of other captured Russian service members for trial. So far, they have tallied more than 11,000 war crimes by Russian forces. If all the trials go like this first one – with its intimacy of justice and personal graspings for reconciliation – the ground may be laid for possible healing between the two countries.

Justice that assigns guilt, bestows accountability, and restores social harmony is best served up individual by individual and in local settings for the public to witness. Few Russians may read or see images of these trials. But since the war began, enough Russians who oppose the invasion have come forward to offer a collective confession of responsibility – even if they were not sent to Ukraine to kill civilians.

“We Russians must openly and courageously acknowledge our guilt and ask for forgiveness,” wrote novelist Mikhail Shishkin in The Guardian.

Harvard University Professor Martha Minow describes forgiveness as the “human efforts to follow divine example.” That helps explain a statement from nearly 300 priests within the Russian Orthodox Church who oppose the church’s official endorsement of the war. The priests wondered how future generations in each country will again “be friends with each other, respect and love each other.”

“There is no other way but forgiveness and mutual reconciliation,” according to the statement.

Sergeant Shishimarin had asked for forgiveness but didn’t expect it. Yet the widow did say she wouldn’t mind if he were exchanged for Ukrainian fighters who surrendered in Mariupol at the Azovstal steel plant. At some level, the two connected. Perhaps Russia and Ukraine will do the same someday.

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