Russian soldiers jailed for war crimes as street fighting splits Donbas city

Moscow’s troops seize part of Severodonetsk and kill civilians in Slovyansk air strike

A Ukrainian court convicted two Russian soldiers of war crimes as fierce fighting continued in the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine, where Moscow’s forces pushed deeper into the devastated city of Severodonetsk and killed several people in an air strike on nearby Slovyansk.

Alexander Bobikin and Alexander Ivanov were sentenced to 11½ years in jail for firing rockets at civilian targets in eastern Ukraine on February 24th, the first day of Russia’s all out-war on its neighbour, which has killed thousands of people and displaced 14 million.

The two men admitted their guilt, as did the first Russian soldier to be tried and convicted of war crimes during the conflict – Vadim Shishimarin, a tank commander who was given a life sentence last week for shooting dead an unarmed Ukrainian pensioner.

Russian forces continued to make slow and bloody gains in Donbas, where they are focusing their troops and firepower after failing to take Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s two biggest cities.

“Unfortunately, the front line has split the city in half, but at the same time the city is still putting up a defence, the city is still Ukrainian. The [armed forces] are holding the line and we hope that soon they will drive out [the Russians],” said Severodonetsk mayor Oleksandr Striuk.

“The city is essentially being destroyed ruthlessly block by block … Civilians are dying from direct strikes, from fragmentation wounds and under the rubble of destroyed buildings, since most of the inhabitants are hiding in basements and shelters,” he explained, estimating that about 12,000 of the city’s 100,000 pre-war residents are still there.

“There are food supplies for several more days, but the issue is how to distribute them,” he added, a day after evacuation runs from Severodonetsk were halted when shelling killed a French reporter travelling in a vehicle used to take residents to safety.

Severodonetsk and neighbouring Lysychansk are the only two remaining cities under government control in Luhansk region, which with the neighbouring province of Donetsk makes up the coal-rich Donbas area that was formerly Ukraine’s industrial heartland.

Russian troops are also grinding their way towards Slovyansk in Donetsk region, a city 80km west of Severodonetsk, which was hit by a Russian air strike in the early hours of Tuesday, killing at least three people and injuring six others.

Russian officials state that the full “liberation” of Donetsk and Luhansk is now their priority, and say their military’s progress is slow because it is trying to minimise civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure, even as residential areas are pummelled with rockets and artillery.

Moscow stopped supplying gas to a major Dutch energy trader on Tuesday and is expected to halt flows to Denmark soon over their refusal to pay for fuel in roubles; Moscow has already ended gas sales to Poland, Finland and Bulgaria for the same reason.

Russia denounced a European Union decision to ban the vast majority of Russian oil imports to the bloc, but said it was ready to facilitate shipments of grain from blockaded Ukrainian ports if Ukraine removed sea mines from its coastal waters.

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe