When Andrey Medvedev was running towards the remote border between Russia Y Norwayhe could hear the sound of attack dogs barking behind him.
This meant that the men who were chasing him were getting closer. But the frontier, and the Western world, were within reach.
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Two months earlier, the 26-year-old had deserted from the wagner groupthe Russian mercenary army. He was about to become the first of his militiamen to defect to the West.
Founded in 2014, the Wagner Group is led by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. It is believed to constitute around 10% of the Russian forces in Ukraine, and has carried out 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 financed has remained shrouded in secrecy. Medvedev’s escape could allow Western intelligence officers to tear back that veil.
It is not clear why Medvedev chose to defect via Norway. The frozen tundra where Russia meets a NATO country is one of the most heavily guarded border regions in the world.
The watchtowers, manned by soldiers, have strong searchlights to pierce the gloom of the winter Arctic. Teams from both sides mount regular patrols.
But in a video released by the Russian human rights group gulagu.netWagner’s former commander claims to have sneaked past those watchtowers, while the pursuing Russian troops were gaining ground.
Medvedev finally managed to jump over the barbed wire guarding the Norwegian border at around 2am local time on Friday.
As he climbed up, he claims he could hear the dogs that were after him. And, as the spotlights from the watchtowers shone on him, the high-pitched whistle of Russian bullets passed him by, he says.
After jumping the wire, Medvedev ran into a forest, hoping to find someone to help him.
Moving through the forest, he saw the lights of a small settlement in the distance, about two kilometers away. She ran towards the light.
He says he was too afraid to look back, fearing that the dogs that were chasing him had also crossed the fence.
He knocked on the first door he found. After pleading with locals in broken English to call the authorities, he was stopped by Norwegian border guards.
His journey, from soldiering in Russia’s brutal invasion of the Ukraine to the relative safety of the West, was over.
Before participating in the war in Ukraine and defecting from the ranks of the Wagner Group, Medvedev’s life had been quite normal.
After serving for a time in the Russian army, as almost all 18-year-olds must do, he was briefly jailed in 2017, Gulagu.net founder Vladimir Osechkin told the BBC. His crime is not known, although some information assures that it was a robbery.
However, it was the violent Russian invasion of the Ukraine which changed his life.
As the conflict neared a stalemate and Russia attempted to fill the gaps created by mounting casualties, the Wagner Group began recruiting in large numbers.
Medvedev, probably moved by the prospect of a stable salary, signed a four-month contract on July 6, which would last until November 6. According to various reports, Wagner’s recruits receive a pay around $10,000 a monthmuch more than the Russian standard salary.
As a man with prior military experience, Medvedev was appointed unit commander in the eastern Donbas region.
Osechkin told the BBC that Wagner provided Medvedev with between 30 and 40 soldiers a week, many of them convicts recruited from Russian prisons.
Much of the heaviest fighting in Ukraine in the past six months has been in Donbas, with Wagner believed to be involved in two of the bloodiest battles: Soledar and Bakhmut.
Medvedev witnessed a series of war crimes, including the execution of “deserters” by the Wagner Group’s internal security service, his lawyer in Norway, Brynjulf Risnes, told the BBC.
After witnessing the group’s “terrorist methods”, Medvedev decided to leave the Wagner Group, Osechkin added.
“He gave me testimony about what he saw in the war,” he said, “and how the special forces of the Wagner Group kill Russians who don’t want to fight Ukraine“.
In November 2022, Medvedev was told that despite fulfilling his four-month contract, the group had unilaterally decided to extend his service. It was not clear 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,” Risnes told the BBC.
After fleeing Ukraine and returning to Russia, Medvedev entered a Wagner recruitment center in the Russian city of St. Petersburg, where he returned his dog tags. This seemed to attract the attention of the group.
“When he left Wagner, the group’s security office did everything possible to find him and he found himself in mortal danger,” Osechkin said.
While being searched by security agents, Medvedev was forced to hide to avoid the kind of brutal punishment he had seen meted out for deserters in the Ukraine.
It was then that he approached Gulagu.net, a human rights organization in exile, for help.
“When he was in danger of death, his friend wrote a letter to me and Gulagu to try to save Andrey’s life,” Osechkin added. “So we help him get out of Russia.”
After try to cross twice into FinlandMedvedev traveled to the far north of Russia and crossed the Norwegian border.
As the story broke on Monday, Wagner’s boss Prigozhin issued a sarcastic statement claiming that Medvedev is a Norwegian citizen who led a non-existent unit of the Scandinavian nation.
An image of Medvedev’s passport shared with the BBC showed that he is indeed a Russian citizen from a town in the central Tomsk province.
Risnes assured the BBC that he believes that the former mercenary took some evidence of war crimes to Norway and that you intend to share your information with groups investigating these events.
While the value of Medvedev’s testimony could prove valuable to future war crimes investigators, they are likely to be the western spies who are most excited to access the mercenary.
Their experiences and involvement in the bloody invasion of Russia could help shed light on the group’s operations around the world.
But for now, Medvedev remains in custody in the Oslo region, awaiting the outcome of his asylum application, far from the conflict that changed his life and made headlines.
I am Jack Morton and I work in 24 News Recorder. I mostly cover world news and I have also authored 24 news recorder. I find this work highly interesting and it allows me to keep up with current events happening around the world.