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Whether (Russian) soldiers, too, can be saved

Marc LiVecche | Remorse can lead to genuine repentance


Russian Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin awaiting the start of his trial on May 23 Associated Press/Photo by Natacha Pisarenko

Whether (Russian) soldiers, too, can be saved
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A court in Kyiv has sentenced Russian Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin to life in prison for the murder of 62-year-old Oleksandr Shelipov, an unarmed Ukrainian civilian. While the 21-year-old sergeant admitted to the killing and expressed remorse, the court rejected his claim that he was only following orders.

Shishimarin was part of a tank division that had come under attack. Fleeing the battle, he and four other soldiers stole a car to escape. When they saw Shelipov riding a bicycle and speaking on his cell phone, one of Shishimarin’s commanders ordered him to shoot, fearing Shelipov would give away their position. Shishimarin fired several times, hitting Shelipov once in the head.

The sentencing concluded the first war crimes trial for Russian atrocities since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The verdict, while severe, appears just. Like the court, Christian morality rejects the “just following orders” defense. Martin Luther, in his famous pamphlet concerning the moral welfare of warfighters, insisted that the Christian—including the Christian soldier—is always to fear God more than man. When our rulers, under whom we ought otherwise to be subject, command us to do wrong we are right to refuse those commands.

To be sure, some Christians at some points in history have insisted otherwise. Under Hitler, more than a few German Christians, citing Romans 13, attempted to argue that opposing civil authority was the same as opposing God. Following World War II, the judges at the Nuremberg trials insisted that an individual who willingly follows illegal orders is morally responsible for that decision and the consequences that follow. As a result, at least 142 top military leaders, SS and police officers, doctors, and government officials were convicted of war crimes. Twenty-five of them were executed.

While his war is a crime, he needn’t have made it his crime.

Interestingly, the Nuremberg judges offered a qualified exception. They allowed that an individual could be exonerated if they carried out an illegal or immoral order to avoid their own physical harm or death. There is precedent to suggest this was an appropriate concession. In wartime Germany, at least 23,000 German soldiers were executed for refusing orders. However, it turns out that those executed were mostly killed for failing to comply with legal orders—that is, for desertion, refusing conscription, and the like. There are no known cases where refusal to participate in atrocities—such as the execution of civilians—led to drastic consequences or death for soldiers of the Wehrmacht or SS. The Germans, contrary to their claims, were not forced to be murderers. For just the same reasons, it is right to hold Russian soldiers such as Shishimarin accountable.

This is not to say that all Russian soldiers are liable for the mere fact that they are fighting an unjust war. There is a concept in military ethics called “the moral equality of soldiers.” It asserts that most soldiers do not throw themselves into war in fits of patriotic enthusiasm. They fight, rather, more or less unwillingly, prompted, to be sure—if only in part—by feelings of patriotism or duty but, nevertheless, largely of the mind that they would rather be anywhere else. Such a soldier, while his war may be unjust, can nevertheless be held blameless for fighting it. War, in this view, isn’t a relationship between persons but between political entities. Armed, the enemy soldier is an enemy, but he isn’t our enemy in any specific personal sense. Moreover, the act of properly judging the justice or injustice of a given war is very often beyond the ability of the average warfighter. In any nation, let alone a dictatorship, citizens have limited access to the information needed to properly judge their government’s actions. The principle of the moral equality of soldiers gives soldiers the benefit of the doubt and allows them to give the same to their leaders.

Nevertheless, there will always be a certainty that the evil of some acts are morally self-evident. The judges at Nuremberg knew this—so did the guilty. Shishimarin should have known this, too. While his war is a crime, he needn’t have made it his crime.

Martin Luther asserted that if a man goes into battle with a good and well-instructed conscience, he could fight well. We cannot fully know the quality of Shishimarin’s conscience. His remorse might bode well in his favor. We do know that he is not beyond redemption. We can pray that his remorse leads to genuine repentance.

Meanwhile, we can hope that his sentencing is a warning to his comrades to fight justly or to face justice.


Marc LiVecche

Marc LiVecche is the McDonald Distinguished Scholar of Ethics, War, and Public Life at Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. He is also a non-resident research fellow at the U.S. Naval War College in the College of Leadership & Ethics. He is the author of The Good Kill: Just War and Moral Injury.

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