March 2. 2024. 3:44

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Ukraine’s judge ‘Dredd’ and colleagues swap court benches for army trenches

Ukraine’s long fight to build a strong and sovereign state, governed by the rule of law and not the Kremlin, has been fought on many fronts, from courtrooms and programmes of institutional reform to the battle for Kyiv and the 1,200km frontline in eastern Ukraine.

Ivan Mishchenko has seen them all, first as a commercial lawyer and now as a judge of the country’s supreme court, a member of an EU-backed commission that aims to cleanse the judiciary of corruption and cronyism, and a soldier in the Ukrainian army.

He is one of several supreme court members who joined the ranks of the military, along with dozens of judges from lower-level courts and hundreds of other legal staff and lawyers, when Ukrainians from all backgrounds mobilised to fight Russia’s all-out invasion of their country last February.

“When the war started, I joined a territorial defence unit in Kyiv because I didn’t have any military experience,” says Mishchenko (41), a father of three who has sat on the supreme court for five years.

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“We helped with aerial reconnaissance. The army’s 72nd brigade was protecting Kyiv at that time, so we went to the commanding officer and said, ‘We have this group [of volunteers], we have our own drones, so please tells us what to do and what areas we should look at.’ It was that easy.”

Ukrainian troops backed by territorial defence groups stopped Russia’s army in the northern suburbs of Kyiv – where the invaders brutalised residents of towns such as Bucha and Irpin – and forced it to retreat into Belarus in late March.

Mishchenko then joined Ukraine’s 93rd mechanised brigade in northern Ukraine with other volunteers including prominent activist Roman Ratushnyi, who had met the judge in 2021 when being tried over protests to block illegal development of Kyiv parkland.

“In April we got more soldiers and more armoured vehicles and tanks and we moved to the [eastern] Kharkiv region near Izyum,” he recalls.

Russia was then intent on seizing Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, and the surrounding province, and it would occupy the strategic town of Izyum for five months before being driven out in September, leaving behind widespread destruction and mass graves containing the bodies of hundreds of civilians, some of which bore signs of torture and execution.

[ Daniel McLaughlin: ‘I just want them back’: Ukrainian civilians tell of torture and legal limbo in Russian captivity ]

Mishchenko says he gained combat experience near Izyum and describes life as a regular soldier with the 93rd brigade as requiring “another level of adaptation”.

“It happened by chance that I joined the 93rd, but I am very proud to be part of it. Its speciality is defence – it is not an assault brigade – and it is said that the 93rd never retreats: it either stands its ground or moves slowly forward,” he explains.

“When you are there it doesn’t matter what position you had in peaceful life. It matters what you are doing and that you are competent to do your job. I had good, close relations with the other guys,” says Mishchenko, whose military callsign is “Dredd”, after the avenging judge of comic-book fame.

“Of course they were surprised, and some didn’t believe me when I told them what I did in civilian life. But when they found out it was for real, they just said ‘Good for you’. It really doesn’t matter a lot – we have guys from all professions you can imagine,” he adds.

“It wasn’t a difficult decision to join the army. I was one of those who said ‘No, this is not going to happen, they are not going to beat us and we have to do something about this.’ And almost the whole country stood up, so it was quite an easy decision for me,” Mishchenko says.

“It can be difficult, but it is a job and you have to do it. It wasn’t like my previous life, of course, but at the same time the objective of all this, everything that we’re doing, is much more important than we are. Is it scary? Sometimes.”

[ US urges allies to arm Ukraine for ‘crucial’ spring offensive against Russian invasion force ]

The dangers are evident in a war in which casualty figures are kept secret, but the United States says more than 100,000 soldiers have been killed and wounded on each side, and many thousands of civilians have died and been injured in shelling and missile fire.

Ratushnyi was killed near Izyum in June, shortly before he turned 25, and hundreds of his compatriots came out to mourn him on Kyiv’s Maidan square, where as a teenager he had joined pro-democracy protests in winter 2013-14 that toppled the Kremlin-backed regime of the time, which pursued closer ties with Russia over integration with the West.

His death drove home the price that Ukrainians are paying for their resistance to Russia, whose million-strong army is now bolstered by thousands of convicts recruited by the Wagner mercenary group on the promise of a pardon if they survive the war.

“He was a very bright and charismatic guy. I think we have lost a lot with him. He was the kind of guy who could have brought a lot of positive changes, who could have been president one day,” says Mishchenko.

“The Russians mostly fight out of fear or for money. Even their families expect that either the guy will bring money from the front line or the government will give them some car,” he adds, referring to an infamous report on Russian state television in which parents of a dead soldier showed off a Lada bought with compensation known as “coffin money”.

“For us it’s all about freedom. The only thing we want is to be free and to be part of Europe and the democratic world.”

After a week full of hearings, Yuriy Chumak, another judge on Ukraine’s supreme court, spent last Saturday driving around the eastern Donetsk region delivering supplies to troops in heavily shelled cities such as Lyman, Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.

Like Mishchenko, he took his wife and children to relative safety in western Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion began and then turned around and returned to Kyiv.

“There were lots of judges and others who were exempt from conscription. But we wanted to protect Kyiv. It was 60-70 per cent surrounded then, so we organised a territorial defence squad,” Chumak recalls of the first weeks of the war.

[ Warlord says Russia is gaining ground, as Ukraine claims it is inflicting heaviest losses of war so far ]

“We were given only Kalashnikovs and a few bullets. We didn’t have much ammunition and stuff. But we were ready to fight and defend Kyiv.”

The unit, called Mriya (“Dream”), swelled to about 700 people by May and still has some 350 members.

“A lot of our people joined the full military forces. Now we have about 35-50 judges and the rest have other jobs,” Chumak explains by telephone as he drives through one of the many military checkpoints that dot roads near the eastern front.

“We’re not all young and strong in our unit and we didn’t do a lot of training; we’re certainly not US Navy Seals but I think we can fight in the city if we have to.”

The more tasks that volunteers can perform in the rear, the more time Ukraine’s professional soldiers can spend near the front or resting and recovering at home.

Now Chumak’s unit is helping defend Kyiv from Russian rocket and drone strikes that have targeted Ukraine’s power grid through the winter, causing long blackouts nationwide.

“This is my duty for one full day every two weeks: I’m on a rooftop with four or five people, and if we see a missile or drone we try to take it out with a machine gun. I didn’t shoot down any yet but our squad has shot down a few Shahed drones, which move quite slowly, about 150 km/h,” Chumak says.

His family was both “scared and supportive” when he took them to Lviv last February and then returned to Kyiv, where his parents refused to leave their lifelong home.

“My wife has known me for 25 years, so she knew I had to go,” Chumak says.

“This is not just a war between military forces. If [Vladimir] Putin took our country he would kill all the people who do not support him,” he says of the Russian president, recalling the atrocities committed in towns such as Bucha and Izyum during occupation last year.

“This is a war of survival. This is genocide. So it doesn’t matter if I’m a judge who is 47 years old and not in the best health – if I can hold a gun and it’s a question of survival, then I will do this.”

The European Union’s decision to grant candidate-member status to Ukraine last June refocused attention on major reforms that the country of 44 million implemented only partially after the Maidan revolution, including a drive to clean up the judiciary.

Mishchenko was recalled from the army to resume work on the so-called high qualification commission of judges, one of two bodies responsible for selecting, vetting and appointing judges, on which he serves with Ukrainian, Canadian, US and Dutch colleagues.

“It is also a kind of battlefield,” Mishchenko says.

“Someday we will win and investors will decide to invest in Ukraine or not, and among other things they will look at the judiciary – is it really independent, has it really got rid of its Soviet past and all those corruption stories? So we need to do this too,” he explains, adding that the commission should complete its work in about two months.

“I want to finish this project and then I will decide what to do,” he says of a possible return to the front.

“The main thing is to find the place where I or any of us will be useful. That’s the main thing – to be useful for the victory and for the country.”