Ukraine's Uneasy Justice

The Politics Behind the Prisoner Exchange

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Ukrainian servicewoman Nadiya Savchenko in Kiev, May 2016. Valentyn Ogirenko / REUTERS

On May 25, Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko returned to her country after nearly two years in Russian detention. Sentenced to 22 years in prison by a court in the Russian border town of Donetsk for her purported role in the deaths of two Russian journalists in 2014, Savchenko was released in exchange for two alleged Russia military intelligence officers who had been held in Ukrainian custody. 

The charges against Savchenko were contested, but her identity was not. The same could not be said about the two Russians, Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, who were captured in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region in May 2015. They initially admitted to serving in the Russian military, but later recanted their confessions, saying that they had been extracted under duress. (Alexandrov and Yerofeyev, along with the Russian government, insisted that the two men had been volunteering with separatist forces in eastern Ukraine at the time of their arrest.) After a lengthy investigation and trial, in April 2016, a court in Kiev found both men guilty of waging “aggressive war” and of committing a “terrorist act” leading to the death of a Ukrainian serviceman, among other crimes. By serving as soldiers in the Russian military alongside separatist forces, the court found, the two men had committed an act of aggression against Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Alexandrov and Yerofeyev are among a small number of Russians who have been convicted of crimes of aggression since the conflict in eastern Ukraine began in the spring of 2014. The trials of these service members hold considerable legal significance, since they appear to mark the first time any court—domestic or international—has convicted a defendant of a crime of aggression since the 1946 International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. More immediately, their origins and outcome reveal how the Ukrainian government has deftly instrumentalized domestic and international law for political gain.

Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Alexander Alexandrov during a court hearing in Kiev, April 2016. A number of peculiarities suggest their trial was politicized.
Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Alexander Alexandrov during a court hearing in Kiev, April 2016. Valentyn Ogirenko / REUTERS


The concept of individual criminal responsibility for international military aggression

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