According to the investigation, Lieutenant Colonel Yevgenii Zelenov ordered the Russian forces to open fire on civilians and cars as the unit approached the Kharkiv ring road.
According to the investigation, Lieutenant Colonel Yevgenii Zelenov ordered the Russian forces to open fire on civilians and cars as the unit approached the Kharkiv ring road. © Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Russian Commander Sentenced to Life Imprisonment

Two people were killed and others wounded after lieutenant colonel directed troops to shoot at Ukrainians fleeing the invasion.

Tuesday, 21 May, 2024

A Russian commander has been sentenced in absentia to life in prison for ordering soldiers to fire on civilians in Kharkiv on the first day of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine.  

On April 30, the Kharkiv Kyiv district court found 49-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Yevgenii Zelenov guilty of violating the laws and customs of war, combined with intentional murder under Part 2 of Article 438 of the criminal code.  

Zelenov, from the Moscow region, is deputy commander of the 25th Separate Motorised Rifle Brigade, part of the 6th Combined Arms Army of Russia’s Western Military District. He served in Chechnya in 1994 and in 2008 led a battalion in the war between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. In 2014, he participated in the illegal annexation of Crimea, “ensuring the security of the referendum,” according to the investigation. 

In February 2022, before the invasion, he was appointed commander of the battalion-tactical group that penetrated the country in the eastern Kharkiv region. 

According to the investigation, on February 24 Russian forces, under his lead, entered from Russia’s Belgorod region, approached the Kharkiv ring road and stopped at the entrance to the city. The military sent back residents from the surrounding villages who drove along the road but many people stayed, demanding traffic be allowed to pass through. 

Zelenov ordered the Russian forces to open fire on civilians and cars. Two soldiers refused to obey and instead helped people escape. With their assistance, two women – a 51-year-old and her 29-year-old daughter – managed to get out of their car, a red Mazda, and hide behind some rubbish bins. Other Russian soldiers then started shooting at them. The mother was hit in the head and died. One of the Russian servicemen who helped them also died while the other one was wounded in his legs. A 48-year-old man and a 61-year-old woman, who were in a separate car, were also injured. 

A Russian soldier disobeyed the order to fire against civilians in Kharkiv. He was injured and was captured. He testified during the trial against his former commander. His face was blurred in the video of the interrogation. © General Prosecutor's office

The suspicion in absentia against Zelenov was issued in June 2022, and nearly a year later, in April 2023, the Kyiv district court of Kharkiv allowed a special trial in absentia. Zelenov, who is reportedly in Russia, did not appear in court following the subpoenas required by Ukrainian criminal law.  

During the court hearing, the victim’s husband, a driver for a chain of pharmacies, said that on February 24 he was in Odesa for work. He was in touch with his family by phone and knew that his wife and daughter had gone to Kharkiv from their village of Bobrivka to withdraw cash and buy groceries. As they returned, his daughter called and told him that Russian soldiers were shooting at them. The man said that about half-an-hour after his wife was killed, his daughter was able to run to the car and took with her the wounded Russian soldier who was rescuing them and called an ambulance. The man managed to arrive home at 1am on February 25, 2022. 

He told the court that hostilities made it impossible for them to leave the house; they managed to recover the body of his wife only on May 9. According to the court registry the woman’s body was found at the intersection of Serdyuk Street and the ring road, wearing a blue jacket and blue trousers.  

The daughter filmed with her phone as events unfolded. The footage shows the woman trying to escape, hiding between the garage and a fence, and shots are heard. She also filmed her mother, wearing a blue jacket, and the Russian soldier next to each other without signs of life.  

The daughter can be heard saying, “I don't want to send this message to my dad yet... If I suddenly don't survive, please tell him that I love him very much.” 

A fragment of the video was published by the office of the prosecutor general. In a clip, the daughter cries and points to a gap between a white concrete fence and a garage where they sought shelter. 

Two women found shelter from the Russian shooting in between a garage and a fence in an area by Kharkiv's ring road. One died, while her 29-year-old daughter managed to survive and flee. © General Prosecutor's Office

During the on-site investigation carried out on November 9, 2022, the young woman said that on the day the invasion started she and her mother were driving back home when the shooting began from the side of the ring road.  

She said that the bullets hit the asphalt in front of the car; her mother turned the vehicle onto a nearby street, drove a little further and stopped. Shooting was coming from the side of the ring road, where there were soldiers dressed in Russian-style uniforms with St George's ribbons. The two women hid with the help of two Russian soldiers who approached them and said that it was dangerous to remain in the car. Then the shooting started again. 

“The soldiers shouted in the direction from where they [other Russian soldiers] were shooting, [saying] to stop the firing, because they were here. The firing continued and the soldiers discussed among themselves why they were also being shot at,” the woman said.  

Her mother was wounded in the hand and screamed, the soldier pushed her to the ground and at that moment he was shot in the neck and died. The other Russian soldier was also wounded in the legs and began to faint. Then the mother was hit in the head. The daughter waited for the firing to stop. She was between a metal structure and a fence and managed to reach the car: the wounded soldier who helped them was alive and asked for help. She dragged him into the back seat of the car and drove off. 

The court files refer to the injured Russian soldier as Person 9. He was captured and interrogated as a witness during the pre-trial investigation and on October 29, 2022, he was exchanged.  

In the video shared by the prosecutor's office, his face is blurred during the interrogation. 

“Zampolit [an abbreviation for deputy commander for military and political work] gave the order to block the roads,” he said. 

“Where exactly did this happen? Do you know?” asked a voice.  

"In Kharkiv, on the district [road],” he replied. 

“When did it happen?” continued the voice. 

“On the 24th [of February]. Citizens staged something like a riot. They said: we need to go there, we [need] to go home, some people need to travel to work... Zampolit got tired and he told to shoot at civilians,” saidthe soldier. He added that the accused saw him and the other serviceman, a lieutenant, helping civilians and ordered the other soldiers to shoot at them.  

When his comrade and the civilian woman were killed, he and the younger woman hid behind a garage and waited for the shooting to stop for about half-an-hour. 

“The girl took the car keys from her murdered mother, helped him get into the car and drove away from there. Then she called an ambulance [which] came and took him to the hospital,” read a testimony in the court decision. The Russian soldier recognised Zelenov from the photo as Zampolit, who gave the order to shoot at civilians. 

The court also questioned two more victims who were injured by the shelling and another witness, a passenger in a car. 

The court rejected the request of acquittal for lack of evidence presented by Zelenov’s defence attorney, appointed by the Regional Centre for Free Legal Aid. The judges stated there was enough evidence and sentenced the Russian lieutenant colonel in absentia to the highest degree of punishment for the violation of the laws and customs of war under Part 2 of Article 438 of the criminal code. The defence has 30 days to appeal. 

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