A former commander with the Russian mercenary Wagner Group who sought asylum in Norway spoke of how he feared for his life in an interview conducted last month in Russia with the Guardian.
Andrey Medvedev, 26, said that in Ukraine he had witnessed the summary killing of Wagner fighters accused by their own commanders of disobeying orders, sometimes in pairs.
After fleeing his unit, he crossed the border into Norway near the Pasvikdalen valley shortly before 2am local time last Friday, where he was arrested and detained by border guards.
“He has applied for asylum in Norway,” said Tarjei Sirma-Tellefsen, the chief of staff for the police in Finnmark, northern Norway.
Medvedev is the first known soldier from the Wagner Group who fought in Ukraine to flee abroad.
Before he left Russia, Medvedev spoke over several phone calls, in which he described in detail his time fighting with Wagner in eastern Ukraine.
“I fought in Bakhmut, commanding the first squad of the 4th platoon of the 7th assault detachment,” Medvedev said on 20 December, adding that he had hidden in Russia since leaving his Wagner unit in July.
Wagner, run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, has played a key role in the months-long Russian offensive against the east Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
Medvedev said his unit was mostly made up of former prisoners who were thrown into the fighting as “cannon fodder”.
To bolster its ranks, Wagner has recruited as many as 40,000 convicts from prisons across Russia, according to estimates by western intelligence and Russian human rights groups.
“The prisoners are used as cannon fodder, like meat. I was given a group of convicts. In my platoon, only three out of 30 men survived,” he said. “We were then given more prisoners, and many of those died too.”
Medvedev, who grew up in a Siberian orphanage and spent at least four years in prison for robbery, also claimed he knew of at least 10 killings of Wagner soldiers who had disobeyed, and had witnessed some personally.
“The commanders took them to a shooting field and they were shot in front of everyone. Sometimes one guy was shot, sometimes they would be shot in pairs,” he said.
Medvedev described how he grew disaffected with Wagner after witnessing the killing and mistreatment of Russian prisoners who were brought to the front by Wagner.
“It shocked us to the core, it was so fucked-up.”
He said he decided to flee in early July after his contract was repeatedly extended by Wagner without his consent.
Medvedev also said he had commanded Yevgeny Nuzhin, a convicted murderer recruited by Wagner who surrendered to Ukrainian forces but was later allegedly handed over to Russia and executed.
At the time, Prigozhin issued a statement saying the clip showing Nuzhin killed by a sledgehammer blow to his head should be titled “a dog receives a dog’s death”.
“I fear my fate will be the same as Nuzhin’s for speaking out. I am scared for my life,” Medvedev said in December while hiding in Russia.
He said he was ready to tell everything he knows about the Wagner Group, its activities and Prigozhin.
In a statement published on his social media channels on Monday, Prigozhin confirmed Medevev was a former Wagner soldier.
The human rights group Gulagu.net, which has been in touch with Medvedev since his journey to Norway, also published an interview with Medvedev, where he detailed his dramatic escape. “When I was on the ice [at the border], I heard dogs barking, I turned around, I saw people with torches, about 150 metres [500ft] away, running in my direction,” Medvedev says in one video. “I heard two shots, the bullets whizzed by.”
Medvedev’s Norwegian lawyer, Brynjulf Risnes, told the BBC that Medvedev was being held in Oslo where he faces charges of illegally entering the country.
Risnes said his client was no longer in custody but at a “safe place” while his case was being analysed. “If he gets asylum in Norway that accusation [of illegal entry] will be dropped automatically,” Risnes said.
“He has declared that he is willing to speak about his experiences in the Wagner Group to people who are investigating war crimes,” the lawyer added.
Medvedev’s account is part of a growing body of evidence that sheds light on the activities of the once-secretive Wagner group. The Guardian earlier spoke with Marat Gabidullin, a former Wagner commander who wrote a memoir about his time fighting as part of the group in Syria.