March 05, 2023
By Aleksander Palikot
For Ukrainian Supreme Court Judge Ivan Mishchenko, the choice to fight on the front line was not a hard one. “If Russia wins, courts and judges will not be necessary in Ukraine,” he said.
KYIV — One day last June, Ivan Mishchenko was holding a Zoom conference with international legal experts as he sheltered in a trench near Izyum, a Kharkiv region city that was under Russian occupation at the time. During the online session, he received a radio message saying that an enemy helicopter was approaching his unit’s positions. He ended the call and rushed to prepare for a possible attack.
Fighting Russian forces and reforming Ukraine’s judiciary did not seem to go hand in hand at that point — but now it’s clear to him that they are parts of the same struggle, Mishchenko, a judge on Ukraine’s Supreme Court, told RFE/RL through a video link from Warsaw.
After several months on the front lines, he left the battlefield and went to Poland to resume work with a European Union-backed commission responsible for selecting new judges in Ukraine.
A year after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a massive invasion of Ukraine, Mishchenko — known by the nickname Judge Dredd, after the comic book and movie character — said he has come to believe that the road to victory will be a long slog, and that the cost will be enormous.
“Justice – an international tribunal for Putin and reparations for Ukraine — will be impossible without our victory on the battlefield,” he said. “And to keep the support of the West, we have to convince it that we can overcome corruption and other internal problems.
“But we have no choice,” he said. “We need to go forward on all the fronts.”
‘The Choice Was Not Difficult’
Despite the huge buildup of forces on along Ukraine’s borders in the months before the invasion, Mishchenko — like many Ukrainians at the time — refused to believe that “Russians will be bombing Kyiv.”
The first thing he did when the missiles falling on the capital on February 24, 2022, proved him wrong was buy a pack of cigarettes — despite promising his son that he would never smoke again after he had quit. He then went to his office and wrote a Facebook post saying: “All tender procedures for the High Qualification Commission of Judges of Ukraine are suspended. Goodbye!”
After that, the 44-year-old husband and father of three turned to his “two-point plan.” He drove his family to Poland and returned to Kyiv to join the city’s resistance. His wife was initially shocked, he said. Before heading back, he wrote a will.
“The choice was not difficult,” Mishchenko said, reflecting months later on his decision to fight. “If Russia wins, courts and judges will not be necessary in Ukraine. There will be no place for myself.”
Ukrainian authorities have not said how many of the roughly 1 million men and women in the country’s fighting force had no previous military experience — but to everybody in the country, it is clear that this number is significant.
Mishchenko was one of some 100,000 Ukrainians who joined the country’s Territorial Defense Forces, a nationwide network of units relying heavily on volunteers in the first week of the invasion.
Out of 10 friends who accompanied him, only one had military training beyond the minimal compulsory service in their youth.
One of the members of the informal brigade that they created, called Kyivans — they even managed to make their chevron — was the 24-year-old anti-corruption activist Roman Ratushniy. Mishchenko first met him in the courtroom during a case linked to Ratushniy’s opposition to the construction of high-rise apartment buildings in Protasiv Yar, a major public park in Kyiv.
“There were people of various ages, backgrounds, and professions among us, but we were constantly learning new things from each other,” Mishchenko said of the brigade.
As Russian troops tried to surround Kyiv and break through the lines of defense north of the capital, the unit conducted aerial reconnaissance. Drawing on their peacetime experience and knowledge, they were operating drones and collecting data to increase the accuracy of Ukrainian artillery.
By mid-March, Mishchenko and his comrades joined the 93rd separate mechanized brigade, also known as Kholodniy Yar, thus becoming a part of the regular armed forces.
Given the lack of professional officers, the judge — who went through mandatory military training in his university days — was put in charge of an infantry platoon with more than 30 men. After two weeks at a location away from the battlefield, the unit was sent to the front line in the Kharkiv region. Their task was to withstand Russian offensives around Izyum as fighting raged in the area.
The Highest Price
Mishchenko said that the death and destruction brought by the Russian Army that he witnessed in the occupied parts of Ukraine “leave no place for ambiguity.”
“It’s black and white,” he said. “They came to our land to kill us and to make money, while we defend our families and ourselves because we want to stay alive.”
Defending the homeland is an honor, he said, and he is especially proud to have been a part of Kholodniy Yar, a unit that he asserted is known “for never backing down and always pushing forward.”
The unit was instrumental in stopping an elite Russian tank division’s advance in the Battle of Trostyanets in March, near the Russian border in the Sumy region, and later took part in the lightning Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region.
But before the latter materialized, Mishchenko’s brother-in-arms Ratushniy was killed near Izyum in June, shortly before his 25th birthday.
Hundreds of mourners gathered around Ratushniy’s coffin on Kyiv’s Independence Square — the Maidan. More than eight years earlier, many of them had been in the same place — including Ratushniy, who was 16 years old at the time — during the massive protests that pushed Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych from power.
“We are paying the highest price: the lives of the best people,” Mishchenko said. “But this is the price of freedom.”
The number of Ukrainian casualties after a year of fighting remains secret. Western officials have estimated that more than 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed or wounded, with a respective estimate for Russian casualties reaching 200,000.
‘No Way Back’
Around the time of Ratushniy’s death, the European Union granted candidate-member status to Ukraine — a goal at the heart of the Maidan protests.
Shortly after that, Mishchenko received calls from his commanders, the Supreme Council of Justice, the Security Service of Ukraine, and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office. He was recalled from the army to resume work within the High Qualification Commission of Judges.
The body responsible for selecting, vetting, and appointing judges, on which he serves with Ukrainian, Canadian, U.S., and Dutch colleagues, is crucial for the judiciary reform necessary for Ukraine’s EU accession.
The Ukrainian judiciary has been plagued with nepotism and corruption for years and has been widely regarded as the Achilles’ heel of Ukrainian democracy.
“We are fighting against a bigger and more numerous adversary, but the biggest threat is ourselves. If we lose the support of the whole civilized world, we will be left to face Russia alone,” Mishchenko said.
Mishchenko is among four Supreme Court judges and 15 of its staff, as well as 60 judges and 311 staff from lower courts, who joined the army. He hopes the judiciary’s involvement in resistance to the invasion, as well as its reform, will enable it to regain society’s trust.
“One thing that is sure is that there is no way back to how we lived before the war,” he said.
Aleksander Palikot is an Ukraine-based journalist covering politics, history, and culture. His work has appeared in Krytyka Polityczna, New Eastern Europe, Jüdische Allgemeine, and beyond.