Four Russian soldiers are led by guards into the spacious chamber of the Poltava region's Kotelevsky district court. They are seated on a bench in a glass booth. For this one day only of hearing, the defendants were brought to court in Kotelva from the Kharkiv detention centre. Before, in the preliminary hearing, they participated with their defence lawyers by video conference.
“Kolesnikov, you are the oldest and you will be the first to give explanations. Do you know what to say? Speak briefly, clearly, quickly,” a lawyer instructs the Russian soldier with glasses who is sitting in the middle, before the hearing. He nods his head in response.
Later, Judge Antonina Sholudko will indeed talk first to Ruslan Kolesnikov, born in 1968, and then to his younger companions: Mikhail Ivanov, born in 1977; Maksim Volvak, born in 1992; and Valentin Bich, born in 1980. All four soldiers were captured a couple of months ago when the Ukrainian army regained control of the Kharkiv region that had been occupied by the Russian Federation. They are assisted in court by an interpreter, a woman in a turquoise suit, who sits in the centre, between the prosecutor, the judge and the defence, and by four lawyers from the Free Legal Assistance Centre - one for each soldier.
According to the accusation, in early September in the village of Borova, south-east of Kharkiv, the Russians tortured three local residents who had taken part in a military operation in Donetsk and Lugansk regions, in eastern Ukraine, during the first episode of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014-2015. Seven years later, at the time of the occupation, the men were not military anymore, explained prosecutor Mykhaylo Martysh.
Beaten with a hammer
The four Russian soldiers were following instructions from their leader, an unidentified military officer code-named “Amur”. It was Amur who allegedly gave the accused instructions to bring the three victims in for questioning as former members of the ATO (the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” held by Ukraine to counter the separatist forces in Donbass).
The prosecutor spent 40 minutes presenting the charges, detailing all the scenes of torture.
On September 1, at 3pm, Russian soldiers captured Vladimir Pushkar. They put plastic restraints on his hands and a bag over his head. The man was then taken in a white pick-up truck to the "Miner's Light" recreation centre in the neighbouring village of Novoplatonovka, where he was held in a 3x3 metre pit dug in the ground, without sufficient food or water.
Over the next two days, Amur interrogated the prisoner about other residents of Borova who participated in the ATO. On September 3, Pushkar was again restrained with hand binders and a bag on his head before he was taken into the area of the local hospital, where he was released.
On September 3, the Russians likewise imprisoned Andrei Maliovany, a resident of Borova. Displaying a knife, Amur threatened to cut off Maliovany's fingers if he did not tell the occupants useful information about his fellow villagers.
On September 4, the Russians came to Sergei Sotnik's house and took him away. At the "Miner's Light" base, the captive was detained in a pit and interrogated, being repeatedly beaten on his limbs with a hammer.
After "the talking", the occupants also let the two men go.
Special forces and PMC soldiers
The Russians listened with detachment. Copies of the indictment in their own language had already been provided to them beforehand.
Kolesnikov, from Rostov-on-Don, was a squad leader in the 16th Brigade of the Spetsnaz GRU, with the rank of Senior Sergeant. Ivanov, from Yakutia, was an RPG-7 grenade launcher, rank of private. Shooter Volvak was born in Ukraine, in the village of Novopskovsky, Lugansk region, but is a citizen of the Russian Federation and lives in Voronezh. The fourth soldier, Valentin Bich from Krasnodar, served as a rifleman.
According to the case file, Kolesnikov and Ivanov are from the private military company (PMC) “Redut”, while the other two are from the 16th Brigade of the GRU, a Russian Armed Forces special unit. However, all four reported to the court that they were from the 16th Brigade. The prosecutor said that the PMC was allegedly independent from the brigade, but also belonged to the armed formations of the Russian Federation. The judge turned to the defendants. Kolesnikov said that "Redut" was indeed created within the 16th Brigade.
“I agree with the charges”
Since the Russians pleaded guilty, the case was heard in a simplified procedure - without examining all the evidence. The court limited itself to questioning them.
Kolesnikov briefly responds to the offer to testify: “I agree with the charges”. The judge explains that they should say exactly when, where and how the crime was committed. Kolesnikov recalls that his brigade departed for Borova on August 29. Their own commander was constantly away and ordered them to obey the military officer called “Amur”.
Amur gave the soldiers three addresses, to which they drove, to capture the men and bring them to him. He conducted the interrogation personally. “They spent the night there. We had a pit - our punished soldiers were put there. These people were detained there. Then Amur called them, talked to them and in 2-3 days we drove them back. As it is written, everything is written…” Kolesnikov nods at the prosecutor, at the accusation report.
“Physical violence - well, right...,” he adds. The Russian does not deny that the victims had restraints on their hands and bags over their heads as well as were subjected to psychological pressure. About Amur's threat to cut off the prisoner's fingers, according to him, he had only heard about it from his companions, but it was not said in front of him. “The boys came and said, ‘He’s lost his mind, hasn't he?’”
“We did hit him a little bit, of course”
The prosecutor reminds Kolesnikov that he himself and his companions struck the victim Sotnik twice in the arms and legs with a hammer.
"I do not argue."
"All of you inflicted [the hits]? One after another?"
"It appears so."
The defendant Ivanov confirms violence against Sotnik:
"We did hit him a little bit, of course... All four of us, one by one."
The judge asks whether they were aware that they were mistreating civilians and violating the laws and customs of war. The Russian soldiers reply that they were aware and are now feeling remorse. Then, the prosecutor asks for 11 years of imprisonment for all of them.
- “I fully agree with the prosecution and with the punishment. We deserve it. This is not the way to act. We were carrying out the order of a higher command,” Kolesnikov said.
His lawyer Liudmila Kalyuzhnaya said that there had been no irreversible consequences from what he had done, so she urged the court to impose a shorter term than the one asked by the prosecutor. The other defence lawyers pointed out that the soldiers followed the orders of their commander and that this was the first time they had committed a crime. Therefore, they insisted that the punishment should be as minimal as legally possible.
At the end, the defendants apologised to the victims and to the entire Ukrainian nation. Ivanov apologised to his “Slavic brothers, the Ukrainians”.
So far, no one is officially saying that the Russians will be exchanged. But during a break, one of the lawyers, walking past the glass booth in which the defendants sit bored while waiting for a decision, drops a remark: “These terms will make no difference to you.”
The verdict is quickly passed: the Russians are sentenced to 11 years in prison.
This report is part of our coverage of war crimes justice produced in partnership with Ukrainian journalists. A first version of this article was published on the "Sudovyi Reporter" website.