(Please note strong language in paragraph 23)
By Nerijus Adomaitis, Janis Laizans and Gwladys Fouche
OSLO – A former commander of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group who fled to Norway told Reuters he wanted to apologise for fighting in Ukraine and was speaking out to bring the perpetrators of atrocities in the conflict to justice.
Andrei Medvedev, who crossed the Russian-Norwegian border on Jan. 13, says he witnessed the killing and mistreatment of Russian prisoners taken to Ukraine to fight for Wagner.
Medvedev said he fled over the Arctic border, climbing through barbed-wire fences and evading a border patrol with dogs, hearing guards firing shots as he ran through a forest and over the frozen river that separates the two countries.
The 26-year-old is now seeking asylum in Norway.
“Many consider me to be a scoundrel, a criminal, a murderer,” Medvedev said in an interview. “First of all, repeatedly, and again, I would like to apologise, and although I don’t know how it would be received, I want to say I’m sorry.
“I want to explain that I am not that person. Yes, I served in Wagner. There are some moments (in my story) that people don’t like, that I joined them at all, but nobody is born smart.”
Appearing relaxed and confident, Medvedev said he wanted to speak out about his experiences in the war so “the perpetrators are punished” for their crimes in Ukraine.
“I have decided to stand against it publicly, to help to ensure that perpetrators are punished in certain cases, and I will try to make my contribution, at least a small bit.”
Wagner has been locked in a bloody battle of attrition in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region.
A special report published by Reuters last week found a graveyard in southern Russia buried with men who were convicts who had been recruited by Wagner to fight in Ukraine.
Kripos, Norway’s national criminal police service, which has responsibility for investigating war crimes, has begun questioning Medvedev about his experiences in Ukraine. He has a status as a witness.
Reuters was not immediately able to verify his claims.
Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has previously said that Medvedev had worked in a Norwegian unit of Wagner and had “mistreated prisoners”.
“Be careful, he’s very dangerous,” Prigozhin said.
Wagner did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Wednesday.
FROMORPHAN TO JOININGWAGNER
Medvedev was born in the region of Tomsk in Siberia. He said he was placed in an orphanage when he was around age 12, after the death of his mother and the disappearance of his father.
He said he was drafted in the Russian military in 2014, aged 18, and served with the Ulyanovsk-based 31st Airborne Brigade.
“That was my first deployment in Donbas,” Medvedev added, declining to give more details.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine began in 2014 after a pro-Russian president was toppled in Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and Russia annexed Crimea, while Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas – comprised of Donetsk and Luhansk – sought to break away from Kyiv’s control.
Medvedev said he had served several jail terms, including one for a robbery, and when he came out of prison the last time, he decided to join the Wagner group, in July 2022.
Medvedev said he hadn’t been recruited straight out of the prison, but decided to join because he realised he would likely be mobilised in the regular Russian armed forces anyway.
He signed a four-month contract for a monthly salary of some 250,000 roubles ($3,575). He crossed into Ukraine on July 16, he said, and fought near Bakhmut.
“It was fucked up. The roads to Artemovsk were littered with the corpses of our soldiers,” he said, using the Russian place name for Bakhmut. “The losses were heavy. … I saw many friends die.”
At Wagner, Medvedev led a squad, taking orders from a platoon commander and planning combat missions. He said he saw “acts of courage from both sides”.
Medvedev said he witnessed two people who did not want to fight being shot in front of freshly recruited prisoners.
“The scariest thing? To realise that there are people who consider themselves to be your compatriots, and who could come and kill you in an instant, or on someone’s orders,” he said. “Your own people. That probably was the scariest thing.”
Medvedev left Wagner at the end of his four-month contract, even though his superiors told him he had to serve longer, he said.
Asked whether he wasn’t afraid to be shot for refusing to fight, Medvedev said: “They somehow forgot to install in me the self-preservation instinct when I was growing up in an orphanage. So not really.”
($1 = 69.9305 roubles)