Russian court accidentally delivers guilty verdict on Putin’s Ukraine war

Ever since Russian forces first crossed the border in spring 2014, Vladimir Putin’s undeclared war in eastern Ukraine has been the world’s worst-kept secret. In an unexpected recent development, a Russian court has now inadvertently provided further official confirmation of Moscow’s military involvement in the ongoing conflict.

Fresh details of Putin’s Ukraine war appeared in an early November verdict issued by a court in Rostov, a southern Russian city close to the country’s border with Ukraine which has served for the past eight years as a key logistics hub for the Russian military campaign. The official court documents related to a bribery case against the manager of a local company responsible for supplying food to Russian soldiers serving across the border in eastern Ukraine.

The verdict in the case against V. H. Zabaluyev was originally published on November 10, 2021, but only came to the attention of journalists in mid-December. It states that Zabaluyev oversaw the procurement and delivery of food to “military units of the armed forces of the Russian Federation” deployed in the Kremlin’s two self-styled people’s republics in eastern Ukraine.

The verdict goes on to provide considerable detail about these deliveries, which apparently took place every two weeks over an extended period in 2018-2019. According to court papers, convoys of up to 70 trucks carried a range of food supplies from the Rostov region to Russian soldiers stationed in Kremlin-occupied eastern Ukraine. The sums of money and volumes of cargo indicated in official court documents suggest a Russian troop presence in eastern Ukraine numbering in the tens of thousands. Drivers reportedly received high salaries due to the perceived “complexity and danger of the route.”

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As news of the incriminating verdict began to spread online, officials in Rostov hurriedly removed the document from the court’s official website. It remains available to view online in archive format.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov attempted to play down the scandal by insisting it was all the result of human error. “We are probably talking about a mistake by those who wrote the text because it is impossible,” he told reporters. “There were and there are no armed forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of the self-proclaimed republics.”

These revelations will be hugely embarrassing for the Kremlin, which has consistently denied any involvement in eastern Ukraine despite overwhelming evidence of a Russian role in the conflict. Russian troops have been captured inside Ukraine and the presence of Russian military hardware in the war zone has been widely documented.

Proof of Russian participation in the conflict has been deemed sufficient for the US, UK, European Union and others to impose sanctions on Moscow. The International Criminal Court in The Hague recognized Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine as far back as 2016, leading to Russia’s withdrawal from the ICC.

While Moscow’s denials have proved largely unconvincing, they have nevertheless created legal uncertainty that has brought a range of benefits for the Kremlin. By officially refuting all claims of involvement, Russia has been able to dilute international reaction and significantly reduce the economic and geopolitical costs of the conflict.

Russian claims of non-participation have also made it possible for Moscow to participate in official observer missions while portraying itself in the international arena as a potential mediator rather than an active participant. This has created obvious barriers to progress in the search for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

In a recent article addressing the stalled peace process, former US Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker noted that the current lack of clarity was hampering efforts to impose additional costs on the Kremlin. “Privately, French and German diplomats acknowledge Russia’s responsibility for the ongoing war, but for diplomatic reasons do not often state this publicly,” Volker observed. “There are signs that this Franco-German unwillingness to identify the aggressor is feeding through into a refusal to consider detailed sanctions at this juncture and even to deny defensive weaponry to Ukraine.”

The recent Rostov court verdict represents rare official acknowledgment of a Russian military presence in eastern Ukraine and may provide fresh opportunities to hold the Kremlin legally accountable. Oleksiy Arestovych, who serves as spokesperson for the Ukrainian delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group which also includes Russia and the OSCE, welcomed the court document as “a powerful legal precedent that can and will form the basis for a review of the entire status of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleh Nikolenko was similarly optimistic. “Russia has by itself created a legal precedent that clearly fixes its status as a party to an international armed conflict,” he noted. “It is not possible to hide Russia’s crimes in Ukraine.”

Peter Dickinson is Editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert Service.

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Image: A member of Kremlin forces in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine points a weapon at fighting positions on the line of separation from the Ukrainian armed forces in Luhansk Region. Ukraine April 21, 2021. (REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko)