Andrey Medvedev could hear attack dogs howling behind him as he sprinted for the distant Russian-Norwegian border.
His pursuers were closing up on him when they showed up. However, the border and the West were within reach.
The 26-year-old had deserted the Wagner Group, a group of Russian mercenaries, two months earlier. He was set to leave for the West as the first of their soldiers.
The Wagner Group was established in 2014, and it is managed by entrepreneur Yevgeny Proigozhin. It is thought to account for 10% or more of Russia’s forces in Ukraine and has participated in conflicts in Mali, Libya, and Syria.
The gang, and its frequently harsh practices, are now widely renowned. But there has been a cloud of secrecy covering the details of how it runs and how it is funded. Medvedev’s flight might make it possible for Western intelligence agents to lift that curtain.
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It’s unclear why he decided to leave through Norway. One of the world’s busiest border posts is the freezing tundra where Russia and NATO meet.
Strong searchlights on the watchtowers, manned by soldiers, cut through the darkness of the Arctic winter. Regular patrols are mounted by teams on both sides.
The former Wagner commander, though, recalls sneaking past such watchtowers in a movie produced by the Russian human rights organization Gulagu. He asserts that the Russian soldiers who were after him were advancing the entire time.
On Friday at around 2:00 a.m. local time, Medvedev claims that as Russian troops closed in, he managed to scramble over the barbed wire securing the Norwegian border.
He said that as he climbed, he heard hounds behind him. He alleges that as the guard towers’ spotlights caught him, he heard the sharp whistle of Russian gunfire shooting past him.
Medvedev climbed over the wire and ran into the Norwegian woodland in an effort to find someone who could assist him.
As he moved through the forest, Medvedev claims he noticed lights from a tiny village about two kilometers away. He took off for the light.
He said he was too terrified to turn around because he was worried the dogs chasing him would have climbed the fence.
The first door he came to, he pounded on. He was held by Norwegian border guards after pleading in bad English with locals to contact the authorities.
His journey from a soldier in ruthless Russian occupation of Ukraine to the comparatively safe West was over.
SOURCE OF IMAGE: GETTY IMAGES
Norwegian soldiers are patrolling the strongly guarded Russian border in the photo.
Medvedev had not led a particularly extraordinary life prior to moving to and defecting from Ukraine.
He was imprisoned for a little while in 2017 or so, according to Vladimir Osechkin, the founder of Gulagu.net, after serving a brief stint in the Russian army, as practically all 18-year-olds are required to do. It is unknown what he did, while some stories claim it was theft.
But his life was changed by Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine.
The Wagner Group started to heavily recruit as the fight drew closer to a deadlock and Russia attempted to fill the holes left by the growing toll of losses.
Medvedev signed a four-month deal on July 6 that would last until November 6 most likely due to the promise of a consistent salary. According to reports, Wagner hires make over $10,000 (£8,186) a month, which is significantly more than the average Russian pay.
Medvedev was selected as a unit commander in the eastern Donbas due to his prior combat expertise.
According to Mr. Osechkin’s account to the BBC, Wagner provided Medvedev with 30–40 troops per week, many of whom were prisoners of war sourced from Russian jails.
The Donbas has seen a lot of the fiercest combat in Ukraine over the past six months, and Wagner is reportedly prominently involved in two of the toughest clashes, in Soledar and Bakhmut.
Brynjulf Risnes, Medvedev’s Norwegian attorney, told the BBC that Medvedev had been present for a number of war crimes, including the execution of “deserters” by the Wagner Group’s internal security force.
And according to Mr. Osechkin, Medvedev left Wagner after seeing the group’s “terroristic practices.”
He claimed, “He gave me testimony about what he observed in the battle and how the Wagner Group’s special troops execute Russians who don’t want to fight against Ukraine.”
In spite of the fact that his four-month contract had expired, Medvedev was informed in November 2022 that the organization had made the decision to continue his employment. How long was unclear at the time.
This appears to have been Medvedev’s breaking point. In essence, Mr. Risnes told the BBC, “He felt misled and wanted to go as quickly as possible.”
SOURCE OF IMAGE: REUTERS
The offices of The Wagner Group are located in St. Petersburg.
Medvedev approached a Wagner recruiting office in the Russian city of St. Petersburg after leaving Ukraine and coming back to Russia, where he gave his dog tags back. The group’s focus appears to have been drawn to this.
“The security office of Wagner Group did a lot of things to find him when he fled, and he was at risk of dying,” Mr. Osechkin added.
Medvedev was compelled to hide because security personnel were looking for him in order to protect himself from the severe punishment the gang had meted out to Ukrainian deserters.
At this point, he turned to the exiled human rights group Gulagu.net for assistance.
In order to assist save Andrey’s life while he was in danger of passing away, his friend wrote a letter to Gulagu and to me, he continued. “We took action at that point to assist him in leaving Russia.”
Medvedev traveled to Russia’s far north and successfully crossed the Norwegian border after making two attempts to enter Finland.
Wagner CEO Mr. Progozhin released a satirical comment when the news came on Friday, alleging Medvedev is a Norwegian citizen who oversaw a fictitious unit from the Scandinavian country.
The BBC was given a photo of Medvedev’s passport, which confirmed that he is a native of a village in the Tomsk area in central Russia.
According to Mr. Risnes, who spoke to the BBC, he thinks the former mercenary brought some proof of war crimes with him to Norway and plans to share his knowledge with organizations looking into war crimes.
While future war crimes investigators may find significance in Medvedev’s testimony, it is probably Western spies who are most eager to capture the mercenary.
His experiences and his involvement in Russia’s brutal invasion could provide insight into the group’s global operations.
But for the time being, Medvedev is being held in a detention facility outside Oslo while he waits to learn the fate of his asylum application. He is currently detained far from the battle that altered his life and made him famous.