War crime in Ukraine: A Russian pilot is convicted… and exchanged

This is the first case of a Russian pilot being sentenced in Ukraine and present in court. On March 2 Lieutenant Colonel Maksim Krishtop was found guilty of committing a war crime for the bombing of the Kharkiv television tower. He spent a year in prison before being tried behind closed doors, for security reasons. Then, the day after his conviction, the court agreed that he be exchanged for Ukrainian prisoners in Russia.

War crimes in Ukraine: Russian pilot Maksim Krishtop speaks at a press conference
Lieutenant Colonel Maksim Krishtop at a press conference in March 2022 after he was captured by the Ukrainian army.
3 min 58Approximate reading time

Last year, on March 6, two Russian military aircraft bombed the Kharkiv television tower with eight bombs of total 2.4 tons TNT load, in the second largest Ukrainian city, north-east of the country. The site had no military value and was exclusive to civilian use. The station was a provider of telephone communications, a siren system, as well as radio and television channels. Destruction or occupation of the station could not have led to any military advantage, said Ukrainian investigators.

According to the investigation, the order to destroy the television tower was given by Major General Oleg Makovetsky, who was appointed to command the 6th Army of the Air Force and Air Defense of the Western Military District of Russian Armed Forces. Oleksiy Loboda, commander of the military unit 45117 (bomber aviation regiment of the 6th Army), notified two pilots and two navigators and ordered them to initiate the mission.

Lieutenant Colonel Maksim Krishtop, deputy commander of the 47th bomber aviation regiment, military unit 45117, was the pilot of one of the aircraft. After damaging the television tower, at about 6:10 p.m. local time, the Su-34 piloted by Krishtop was shot down by the Ukrainian National Guard. The Russian aircraft was destroyed, but Krishtop ejected and was later captured around 2 a.m.

“I realized that the targets were not enemy military objectives”

On March 11, 2022, a press conference was held in Kyiv involving captured Russian soldiers who urged their commanders to stop the war. Krishtop was among them and he made a speech as a prisoner of war. He stated that in January, Lieutenant Colonel Loboda told him about the upcoming involvement in combat operations. The soldiers began to practice flying at very low altitudes, evading air defense and firing missiles. He said he managed to complete three flights into the territory of Ukraine and during one of them dropped 4 tons of explosive bombs on residential buildings. "While carrying out a combat mission, I realized that the targets were not enemy military objectives, but residential buildings and civilians, but I executed the criminal order. Then I was shot down by Ukrainian air defense and taken prisoner by the National Guard of Ukraine," the captured Russian pilot said. 

Krishtop said he had dropped bombs on Ukrainian soldiers south of Balakliya and on a convoy of Ukrainian armored vehicles near Izium. He specified that the bombs in question were of 250/500-kilogram caliber.

"I want to apologize to the Ukrainian people for the tragedy we have brought. I promise to make all efforts to ensure that this war ends as soon as possible and that all those responsible for the genocide of the Ukrainian people are brought to justice," Krishtop added at the press conference.

Two other soldiers sitting next to him were Aleksey Golovensky, an aviation squadron commander, and Aleksey Kozlov, a navigator. Their regiment was stationed at the Russian Navy airfield in Crimea. They were carrying out military flights in order to scout and detect Ukraine's air defense. On March 5, they were shot down by Ukrainian forces over the Mykolaiv region. Golovensky confirmed during the press conference that his parents were living in Ukraine, and his wife's relatives were living in Kharkiv.

Many of the captured Russian military men are subject to prisoner exchange despite them being suspects of war crimes. According to the publication "Krym. Realii", on July 29, 2022 Golovensky was exchanged during the largest to date prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia. It is believed that Golovensky spent 116 days in captivity. It is unknown if Kozlov benefited from a similar arrangement or not.

A trial behind closed doors

As of late February 2023, Krishtop had not yet been subject to a prisoner exchange and was being detained in the Dnipro correctional facility (No.89). After the case was submitted to the court on February 24, it was decided to transfer him to the Kharkiv pre-trial detention facility.

The trial of Krishtop was prompt and closed to the public. His name was not listed in the court's schedule, so journalists or other observers could not find out about the hearing. Following a motion by the defense lawyer, the court held a closed hearing for the part when the accused gave testimony. On March 2, the Dzerzhinsky District Court in Kharkiv found Krishtop guilty of violating the laws and customs of war. This is the first case of a Russian pilot being sentenced in Ukraine. Furthermore, the verdict was not pronounced in absentia, but in presence of the accused.

The public transcript of the verdict excludes Krishtop's testimony on the grounds of it being classified information. The reasons for this are not explained in the decision, but during the preliminary hearing the defense lawyer insisted on a completely closed trial due to security reasons for the accused. 

Krishtop pleaded guilty and cooperated with the investigation, which the court took into account. The Russian has no previous criminal record, he is married and has two underage sons. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He is to remain in custody in the Kyiv pre-trial detention facility as a prisoner of war for the time being. The accused is to pay the damages sustained by the telecom companies "Lifecell" - 434,000 UAH (about 11,000 euros) -, "Kyivstar" - 96,000 UAH (about 2,500 euros) -, and "VF Ukraine" - 591,000 UAH (about 15,000 euros). 

Yet, the day after his conviction, the court accepted the request filed by the prosecutor's office - and approved by the convict - that Krishtop be subject to a prisoner exchange with Russia.

On January 26 of this year, the Security Service of Ukraine has officially issued notices of suspicion for the bombing of the Kharkiv television tower. They include Major General Oleg Makovetsky and Lieutenant Colonel Oleksiy Loboda, who are at large.

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.