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Andrey Medvedev: How Russian mercenary says he made an icy escape to Norway

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Image source, Gulagu

As Andrey Medvedev dashed towards the remote Russia-Norway border, he claims he could hear the sound of attack dogs snarling behind him.

Their arrival, he says, meant the men hunting him were closing in. But the border – and the Western world – were in reach.

Two months earlier, the 26-year-old claims he deserted from the Russian mercenaries, the Wagner Group. He was about to become the first of their troops to defect to the West.

The specific claims of his apparent escape from Russia to Norway cannot be corroborated.

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Founded in 2014, the Wagner Group is run by the businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. It is believed to make up about 10% of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, and has conducted operations in Syria, Libya and Mali.

The group, and its often inhumane methods, are now internationally known. But information about how it operates – and how it is funded – has remained behind a veil of secrecy. Medvedev’s escape could allow Western intelligence officers to tear that veil away.

Why he chose to defect through Norway is unclear. The frozen tundra where Russia meets Nato is one of the most heavily guarded border regions in the world.

Watchtowers, staffed with soldiers, have strong searchlights to break through the winter Arctic gloom. Teams on both sides mount regular patrols.

But in a video released by the Russian human rights group Gulagu.net, the former Wagner commander recalls sneaking past those watchtowers. All the while, he claims, the Russian troops hunting him were gaining ground.

At around 2am local time on Friday, Medvedev says, he finally scrambled over the barbed wire guarding the Norwegian border as Russian guards closed in.

As he climbed, he says he could hear dogs behind him. And, as spotlights from the guard towers picked him up, the shrill whistle of Russian bullets shot past him, he claims.

After scrambling past the wire, Medvedev ran towards a forest – the Norwegian forest – in the hope of finding someone to help him.

Moving through the woodland, Medvedev says he saw lights from a small settlement in the distance – around two kilometres away. He ran toward the light.

He was too afraid to look behind him, he says, scared the dogs pursuing him had also navigated the fence.

He banged on the first door he came to. After pleading with locals in broken English to call the authorities, he was detained by Norwegian border guards.

His journey – from soldier in Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, to the relative safety of the West – was over.

The point where Medvedev crossed into Norway

Before his arrival in, and defection from Ukraine, Medvedev had not lived a particularly unusual life.

After serving a brief period in the Russian army – as almost all 18-year-olds must – he was jailed for a short period in around 2017, Gulagu.net founder Vladimir Osechkin told the BBC. His offence is not known, although some reports say it was theft.

But it was Russia’s violent invasion of Ukraine that changed his life.

As the conflict approached stalemate, and Russia tried to fill the gaps created by mounting casualties, the Wagner Group started to recruit heavily.

Medvedev, likely induced by the prospect of a steady wage, signed a four-month contract on 6 July until 6 November. Wagner recruits are reportedly paid around $10,000 (£8,186) per month, far more than the standard Russian salary.

As a man with previous military experience, Medvedev was appointed a unit commander in the eastern Donbas region.

Mr Osechkin told the BBC that Wagner supplied Medvedev with about 30-40 troops per week, many of them convicts recruited from Russian prisons.

Much of the most intense fighting in Ukraine in the past six months has occurred in the Donbas, and Wagner is believed to be heavily involved in two of the bloodiest battles – in Soledar and Bakhmut.

Medvedev’s lawyer in Norway, Brynjulf Risnes, told the BBC that Medvedev witnessed a host of war crimes – including seeing “deserters being executed” by the Wagner Group’s internal security service.

And Mr Osechkin said Medvedev decided to leave Wagner after witnessing the group’s “terroristic methods”.

“He gave to me testimony about what he saw in the war,” he said, “and how the special forces of Wagner Group kill Russians who don’t want to fight against Ukraine.”

In November 2022, Medvedev was told that, despite completing his four-month contract, the group had decided unilaterally to extend his service. It was unclear for how long.

This seems to have been the final straw for Medvedev. “In short he felt betrayed and wanted to leave as soon as possible,” Mr Risnes told the BBC.

Norwegian troops on patrol along the Russian border

Image source, Getty Images

After fleeing Ukraine and returning to Russia, Medvedev entered a Wagner recruiting centre in the Russian city of St Petersburg where he returned his dog tags. This appears to have attracted the group’s attention.

“When he left Wagner Group, the security office of Wagner did a lot of things to find him and he was at risk of dying,” Mr Osechkin said.

With security agents searching for him, Medvedev was forced to go into hiding to avoid the brutal kind of retribution he had seen the group impose upon deserters in Ukraine.

It was at this point that he approached Gulagu.net – an exiled human rights organisation – for help.

“When he was at risk of dying, his friend wrote a letter to Gulagu and to me, to help save Andrey’s life,” he added. “We did something then to help him to leave Russia.”

After attempting to cross twice into Finland, Medvedev travelled to Russia’s far north and made the passage across the Norwegian border.

As the story broke on Monday, Wagner chief Mr Prigozhin issued a sarcastic statement claiming Medvedev is a Norwegian citizen who led a non-existent unit from the Scandinavian nation.

A picture of Medvedev’s passport shared with the BBC showed he is indeed a Russian citizen from a village in the central province of Tomsk.

Mr Risnes told the BBC he believes the former mercenary had taken some evidence of war crimes with him to Norway, and that he intends to share his information with groups investigating war crimes.

While the value of Medvedev’s testimony could prove valuable to future war crimes investigators, it is likely to be Western spies who are truly excited to get their hands on the mercenary.

His experiences, and his part in Russia’s bloody invasion, could help shed light on the group’s operations around the world.

But for now, Medvedev remains in custody in the Oslo area, waiting to hear the outcome of his asylum application – far away from the conflict that changed his life, and shot his name into the headlines.

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