A Moment of Horror, and a New Hero for Ukrainians
On Monday, the grim chronicles of Russia’s war in Ukraine hit a macabre new low when a video appeared on social media depicting the apparent execution in cold blood of a captive Ukrainian soldier by Russian troops. The 12-second clip shows a weary-looking man in camouflage fatigues standing in a shallow trench in a wooded area calmly smoking a cigarette while someone off-camera, speaking Russian, says either “Film him” or “Don’t film him.” Then, just as calmly, the man says “Slava Ukraini!”—“Glory to Ukraine!”—the slogan made famous by the past year’s war. “You bitch!” a man sputters off-camera, and at that very moment there is a burst of automatic gunfire, blowing off the prisoner’s cap and bringing him down a split second later. Then, almost without pause, more bullets rip into the fallen soldier’s body. And a final off-camera comment, just before the video ends: “Sdokhni, suka” (“Croak, bitch”).
The full context of this hideous act is not entirely clear—not that there’s any context that could mitigate it. Was the man being filmed for some other purpose, perhaps to document his surrender, and then killed on the spot for his defiant words? Or was this a deliberately filmed firing-squad execution, with the prisoner smoking a last cigarette according to old military tradition and knowingly speaking his last words? Was he standing in a trench or, as some have speculated, in a grave he’d been ordered to dig?
Whatever the answer to these questions, there is no reason to doubt that the video shows a shocking war crime: the execution, whether planned or carried out on the spur of the moment, of an unarmed and unresisting prisoner of war. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has urged the International Criminal Court to investigate the killing, and Ukraine’s prosecutor-general Andriy Kostin and the Security Service of Ukraine have started an investigation of their own.
The Ukrainian military has identified the victim as Tymofiy Mykolayovych Shadura, 41, a soldier of 30th Separate Mechanized Brigade who had been fighting in the Donetsk area and had been missing since February 3. While the identification has been confirmed by several of Shadura’s five siblings and other family members, it is not yet final. An alternate identity has been proposed by journalist Yuri Butusov, who says the man in the video may be 42-year-old Oleksandr Matsievsky, a serviceman from the 163rd Battalion of the 119th Territorial Defense Brigade who went missing near Soledar in late December and whose body was retrieved and buried in February. Butusov says that the bullet wounds found on Matsievsky’s body match the areas where the executed soldier was hit; an exhumation for further investigation is likely.
Whether the man in the video turns out to be Shadura or Matsievsky (or even someone else), he is, without a question, Ukraine’s newest iconic hero. His dignified, uncowed, slightly slouching posture, the casual gesture with which he tosses aside the cigarette after taking one last drag, the way in which he speaks his last Slava Ukraini—with no theatrics, as simply as one would say hello or goodbye—is the stuff of myth. Those last words invite the customary response: Heroyam slava, “Glory to the heroes.” Or, as slightly modified by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in his somber but stirring short video address: Heroyu slava, “Glory to the hero.”
Not surprisingly, the image of the soldier has already been posterized, online (many times over) and in the real space of war-torn Ukraine: A poster depicting the fallen hero in his final moments, against the backdrop of a Ukrainian flag and the slogan Heroyam slava, was spotted in Odessa the next day:
While Ukrainian officials pledged to bring the murderers to justice, it’s hard to say whether they will ever be identified, let alone prosecuted. (And given the massive losses of Russian troops in the area, there’s a good chance they have already followed their victim to the other side.) Were they Wagner thugs carrying out another execution? “Donetsk People’s Republic” militiamen driven by loathing for the Ukrainians they regard as oppressors? Regular Russian soldiers? Mobiki, or conscripts, brutalized by war and reacting with fear and loathing to a Ukrainian captive’s show of indomitable spirit? In any of these scenarios, the act is unjustifiable, and the executioners are as instantly odious as the doomed man is instantly heroic. And while these murderers may remain forever anonymous, many will say that all of Russia is convicted in their stead. “This is the face of this war. This is the face of the Russian Federation,” Zelensky told CNN. Harsh but, on some level, true—at least unless Russian society repudiates this act.
So far, the Russian government has said nothing; neither have any Russian military officials. Daniil Bessonov, the “deputy minister information minister” for the so-called “People’s Republic” of Russia-controlled Donetsk, claimed, inevitably, that the video was a false flag operation—that “there are reasons to believe that they executed one of our soldiers, who was dressed in a Ukrainian uniform in order to create an international scandal and accuse our side of war crimes.” One Russian Instagram blogger expressed regret that “they wasted so many bullets.”
Critics of Ukraine and its cause will likely strive for moral equivalency by recalling the shooting of apparently surrendering or surrendered Russian soldiers in the village of Makiyivka by Ukrainian troops last November. But the differences are overwhelming. In the Makiyivka incident, also partly caught on video, several Russian soldiers who had surrendered were shot after one man from the group ran out of a building and fired at the Ukrainian soldiers. Since there is a break in the video, it’s hard to tell whether any of the other Russian soldiers tried to assist the shooter or to make a run for it. Pretending to surrender as a ploy to ambush the enemy is itself a war crime, and it certainly makes a soldier a legitimate target. While many of the details of the killings at Makiyivka are still unknown—and are being investigated by Ukrainian authorities—based on what is known now there is simply no comparison to the execution in the new video.
Some commentators, such as Ukrainian journalist and political analyst Taras Berezovets and Russian expatriate lawyer and political activist Mark Feygin, have speculated that whatever the motive for the execution, the release of the video may have had a sinister ulterior motive: to discourage increasingly desperate Russian soldiers from surrendering or defecting to the Ukrainian side by making them fear death, or at least brutality, at the hands of revenge-crazed Ukrainian soldiers. That seems far-fetched, though one can’t put it past some strategic genius in the Russian armed forces to come up with such a plan. In any case, one can at least hope that Ukrainian military leadership, which has worked hard to encourage surrenders by the Russians, will take steps to prevent any acts of retaliation.
But in one sense, the execution of the heroic POW will certainly harden the Ukrainians, just as the atrocities in Bucha, Irpin, and other formerly occupied Ukrainian towns did last year. It will make them more determined to fight and win. It will also undoubtedly make the West less inclined to encourage peace negotiations that would involve Ukrainian concessions to Russia.
A senseless killing on the Russian side; a heroic death imbued with profound meaning on the Ukrainian side. That is, in so many ways, the story of this war.