War crimes trial — first of many — starts in Ukraine; Russian commanders taking risks under growing pressure

KRAKOW, Poland — The trial of a single Russian sergeant opened in Ukraine in what is expected to start a massive prosecution for war crimes in a monthslong conflict that on Friday saw fighting rage in the east as Russia appeared to suffer new losses when its forces attempted to breach a key river.

The two top defense officials in the U.S. and Russia, meanwhile, held their first direct communication in nearly three months, but Moscow remained uninterested in Western calls for an immediate cease-fire in a war that has battered cities, left thousands dead, spawned millions of refugees and sparked fears of a global food crisis.

To underscore its resolve, Russian forces on Friday aimed a punishing new barrage at areas in the country’s north, east and south, including bombardment of a final Ukrainian redoubt in the shattered southern port of Mariupol.

Repeated attempts by the government in Kyiv to broker a deal to evacuate wounded soldiers from a sprawling steel plant — the last sliver of territory in the city held by Ukrainian forces — have so far failed.

Seeking to intensify Western pressure on Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said the bloc would soon revisit the notion of an embargo of Russian oil. Hungary has so far resisted such a step, but Borrell expressed the belief that those reservations could be overcome despite worries in Europe of economic hardship.

“We need this agreement, and we will have it,” he said Friday as Group of Seven foreign ministers from wealthy democracies gathered in Germany.

Amid diplomatic maneuvering and heavy fighting, Ukraine launched what was described as the first war crimes proceeding stemming from the nearly 3-month-old invasion. A 21-year-old Russian tank commander appeared Friday in court on charges of shooting an unarmed civilian who was riding his bicycle in a northeastern Ukrainian village.

Ukraine says it is investigating thousands of alleged war crimes as the trial of Sgt. Vadim Shyshimarin, who stood with a shaved head in a glass box, opened in a Kyiv courtroom. The soldier, who was captured by Ukrainian forces, could face life in prison in the shooting of an unarmed 62-year-old civilian man in the northern village of Chupakhiva.

Ukrainian investigators, backed by international experts, have interviewed thousands of witnesses and survivors and collected evidence from mass graves and the sites of shootings.

The Russian retreat from areas near the Ukrainian capital followed weeks of its forces occupying suburbs and satellite towns to Kyiv’s north and west. In their wake, the Russian forces left a trove of evidence of atrocities against Ukrainian civilians, which Moscow denies took place.

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials reported the first telephone contact between the top defense officials in the U.S. and Russia since before Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine more than two and a half months ago. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, for about an hour Friday and called for an immediate cease-fire, the Pentagon said.

“We hope this is a springboard for further communication ... now that they have reconnected,” a senior Defense official said. The official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity in keeping with administration protocol, said U.S. Pentagon officials have been regularly seeking to speak to Shoigu or other senior Russian officials with no luck. He characterized the call as “professional” and insisted it did not reflect a change in policy.

As fighting rages in eastern Ukraine, Russian commanders are under growing pressure to make battlefield gains even if it means taking risks that can backfire, a British military intelligence assessment said Friday.

The assessment cited widely viewed video of Russian armored vehicles destroyed during an attempted river crossing, which was posted online by Ukraine’s military. The images could not be independently verified.

Ukrainian troops have managed to push Russian troops away from the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, Ukrainian and Western military officials say, more than a month after Russia broke off an attempt to seize the capital, Kyiv.

But Russian forces have slowly taken some ground elsewhere in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, and heavy use of artillery against populated areas is exacting a horrific civilian toll.

While the front lines have been fluid in some areas, with some villages changing hands repeatedly, clashes along a 300-mile battlefront have been punctuated by some decisive losses and gains. Ukraine’s defense ministry said Thursday that more than a dozen Russian armored vehicles were destroyed while trying to cross the Seversky Donets River near the village of Bilohorivka in Luhansk, one of two provinces making up the Donbas region, the war’s main battleground. U.S. officials said they could not confirm reports that the Ukrainians had destroyed a pontoon bridge being used by the Russians but did say they had credible intelligence that Russians were incurring losses along rivers.

Western analysis of the event placed it in the context of other setbacks suffered by Russian forces during the war, including the failed early attempt to capture Kyiv, saying Moscow’s military leaders were likely under increasing duress as a result.

“Conducting river crossings in a contested environment is a highly risky maneuver and speaks to the pressure the Russian commanders are under to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine,” the daily British military assessment said.

Based on images of the event, Russia lost “significant armored maneuver elements” of at least one battalion tactical group, the intelligence report said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in an overnight video address, declared that “Russia’s strategic defeat is already obvious to everyone in the world.” He spoke hours after Finland’s leaders expressed support Thursday for joining the NATO alliance, marking a fundamental shift in Europe’s security architecture.

The Kremlin responded to the Finnish announcement, and a similar one considered likely soon from Sweden, with threats of unspecified “military technical” measures. The White House and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg both said Finnish and Swedish membership applications would be welcomed.

With Western nations continuing to search for ways to dissuade Putin from pressing on with the war, G-7 foreign ministers held their seventh such gathering since the Feb. 24 invasion. At the meeting in Germany, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss urged the allies to keep economic sanctions in place until Russian troops leave Ukraine, the British foreign office said in a statement.

Truss told the gathering that Putin was “humiliating himself on the world stage” in Ukraine and called for a “clear pathway” for Ukraine to obtain NATO-quality military equipment, the statement added. “The only acceptable scenario is victory for the Ukrainian people,” Truss said.


Wilkinson reported from Washington.