Label Putin’s Russia a ‘terrorist state’

Andriy Yermak is the head of the Office of the Ukrainian Presidency.

Russian tank commander Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin was panicking when he and four comrades hijacked a car, about 200 miles from Kyiv.

It was February 28, and the Russian military had already encountered unexpectedly fierce resistance from the Ukrainian armed forces. Just days into the war, many were already in retreat.

Shishimarin and the four other members of Russia’s Kantemirovskaya tank division stole the car after their convoy had come under attack. And as they drove away from the front line, they came across Oleksandr Shelipov, a 62-year-old Ukrainian man who was out riding his bicycle.

Shishimarin claims his superior officer told him to gun down the defenseless civilian. The tank commander obeyed the direct order and sprayed Shelipov with bullets from his Kalashnikov automatic rifle.

Later captured by the Ukrainians, Smishimarin plead guilty in a Ukrainian court, becoming the first Russian soldier convicted of war crimes in a conflict that’s increasingly defined by the deliberate targeting of civilians — in complete breach of all international laws.

During his trial, Shelipov’s widow confronted Shishimarin. “Tell me, please, why did you [Russians] come here?” she asked. “To protect us? Protect us from whom? Did you protect me from my husband, whom you killed?”

The soldier apologized and said he was following a direct order. He added: “But I understand you won’t be able to forgive me.”

Oleksandr Shelipov’s murder will be high on the agenda at an international conference on accountability for Ukraine, which is due to start today at the Hague.

Here, leading experts, lawyers and politicians — including Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba — will gather to coordinate ongoing investigations into war crimes committed in Ukraine, and ensure that these gross violations of human rights and international law do not go unpunished. However, it’s also important to remember that such prosecutions are not the only solution.

War crimes are happening on a daily basis in Ukraine, and they are too numerous to list here. But a few significant events have caught the world’s attention.

In March, a Russian strike on a theater in Mariupol was the deadliest civilian attack since the war began.

The Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater had stood at the heart of the city for over 60 years, so it was no surprise when it was established as the main bomb shelter. The building was packed with innocent civilians, many of them children, with one person for every 3 square meters of free space. They thought the sturdy walls and deep basement would protect them. They were wrong.

The building clearly wasn’t a military target. The theater’s set designer had even used white paint to splash the word “CHILDREN” in Cyrillic letters on the pavement outside. And though the letters were large enough to be seen by satellites, they weren’t clear enough for the Russian warplanes that obliterated the theater on March 16. The official death toll is 300, but credible reports place it as high as 800.

Journalists entering the town of Bucha after Russian troops had fled also found the bodies of at least 20 men in civilian clothes strewn across a street. One had his hands tied behind his back with a piece of white cloth. Anatoly Fedoruk, mayor of Bucha, said all of the men had been shot in the back of the head. In total, 280 town locals have been buried in mass graves.

In a village nestled in a pine forest, not far from Kyiv, a woman identified only as Natalya has bravely come forward to reveal her ordeal at the hands of Russian soldiers as well. In March, they invaded the village and executed her husband before turning on Natalya, raping her repeatedly over several hours. Her young son bore witness to the attack.

These are but a few of the many crimes against humanity suffered by the Ukrainian people. It is time for the world to act.

Our Western allies have unanimously condemned Russia’s indiscriminate attacks on non-military targets, but they could also put a meaningful legal definition to these atrocities: Russia has engaged in widespread terrorist activity.

Terrorism isn’t a tactic of political coercion that can only be utilized by rogue groups against a more powerful adversary. It can also be pursued by a major state power against a smaller country. The tactics, methods and outcomes remain the same.

The definition of terrorism is a deliberate, indiscriminate attack on civilians with a political goal. And no one could try and explain how Russia’s conduct of war fails to meet this test.

Despite their support in many important areas, however, incredibly, Ukraine’s Western allies still don’t formally recognize Russia as a terrorist state, or “state sponsor of terrorism.” Such a move would have dramatic legal consequences: No one in the West does business with terrorists, and such a designation would further limit the Russian regime’s access to the finance it needs to fund its war machine.

Yet, so far, only Lithuania has heeded the repeated requests made by our President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has advanced a supportive resolution, but the White House is yet to act.

Failure to designate Russia as a terrorist state makes a mockery of the international agreements long established to deal with such horrors. But perhaps some lives simply don’t matter enough.