A former Russian paramilitary fighting in Ukraine has promised to give evidence against the notorious Wagner group after making a dramatic escape and seeking asylum in Norway.
Andrei Medvedev says he is a former commander of a Wagner unit who left the front lines in November and went on the run until he clambered across two border fences in northern Norway last week.
Tarjei Sirma-Tellefsen, police chief of staff in the Norwegian region of Finnmark, said a border patrol that also included the military arrested the man early on Friday after he illegally crossed from Russia.
Medvedev’s high-profile escape is the first known instance of a former member of Wagner defecting to the west since Russia’s president Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion last February.
In a video posted on Sunday by Vladimir Osechkin, an exiled Russian human rights activist, Medvedev said he fled from the front lines in November after four months fighting in Ukraine.
Medvedev claimed Wagner had extended his contract indefinitely after it expired and threatened him with extrajudicial reprisals if he refused to fight.
He said he went underground in Russia for two months, then crossed the ice-clad Pasvik river, fleeing guards who fired gunshots and sent dogs to chase him, until he reached Norway.
Once there, Medvedev asked for help from a nearby Norwegian house, police said.
Norwegian intelligence said it was following the case, and Medvedev’s lawyer said he was sure authorities in both Norway and internationally would want to question him.
“It is obvious that he will be checked out in every possible way,” Brynjulf Risnes, his lawyer, told state broadcaster NRK. “First, you have to check if what he says is true. There are surely many people who think this could be a provocation. The Norwegian authorities will probably keep all options open.”
Risnes told NRK that Medvedev had already been interviewed by immigration authorities, and there were no current suspicions of him having committed war crimes.
Wagner and its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former caterer known as “Putin’s chef”, have taken an increasingly prominent role on the front lines in Ukraine as Russia’s regular army continues to struggle with inefficient command and logistics issues.
Last week, Wagner and Russia’s defence ministry both claimed to have taken the lead in capturing Soledar, the only town in Ukraine that Russia has taken after its offensive began to sputter in the summer.
The rare success was the first high-level official acknowledgment of Wagner’s role after years of denying its involvement in conflicts from eastern Ukraine to Syria and Africa.
“The country must know and knows its heroes, both those who serve in the armed forces and the Wagner group,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday. “Everyone is working for a common cause: everyone is fighting for the motherland.”
Wagner’s deployment in front-line areas such as Bakhmut and Svatove, where it has fought in brutal positional battles, was an open secret by the time Prigozhin admitted he led Wagner, in September 2022.
This move was part of a publicity campaign aimed at establishing himself as the leader of a hardline faction critical both of Russia’s military leadership and oligarchical elite.
Prigozhin’s full-throated support for the war and his reputation for brutality appears to have won the group significant state backing, even as Wagner celebrates on social media its own apparent role in brutal killings of Ukrainian captives.
The former caterer has openly toured prisons to recruit convicts to fight in Ukraine, while Wagner has been prominently featured on state television and advertised for recruits on billboards across Russia.
The Kremlin has not confirmed that convicts are being used in the fighting. Still, in December, Putin awarded Aik Gasparyan, a Wagner fighter and convicted armed robber, with a medal for “valour” on New Year’s Eve in a public ceremony.
Wagner-linked media have posted several videos in which Prigozhin vows to shoot “deserters”. One video last November appeared to show one of the group’s ex-convict fighters, Evgeny Nuzhin, being murdered with a sledgehammer.
Prigozhin revelled in the notoriety: a Wagner-linked channel on social media app Telegram posted an image of a sledgehammer stained with fake blood that the paramilitary chief allegedly sent to the European parliament. Prigozhin’s catering company Concord posted a new year’s message featuring a cake decorated with sledgehammer-wielding rabbits.
Medvedev, who claimed to have commanded Nuzhin’s unit, denied he had participated in war crimes but said he had seen Wagner’s internal security forces carry out multiple executions of its own men if they refused to fight.
He said Wagner’s commanders were indifferent to whether its troops lived or died, claiming as many as 15 to 20 could be killed in just one day of combat.
“There was a risk they would grab me and kill me, shoot me or do something worse — like they did to Nuzhin, just death by sledgehammer,” he said.
Additional reporting by Anastasia Stognei in Riga