Wagner defector sheds light on brutality in Ukraine

Oslo, Norway

A former Wagner mercenary said the brutality he witnessed in Ukraine ultimately drove him to defect, in an exclusive interview with CNN on Monday.

Wagner’s fighters were often sent into battle with little direction, and the company’s treatment of reluctant recruits was ruthless, Andrei Medvedev told CNN’s Anderson Cooper from Norway’s capital Oslo, where he is seeking asylum after having crossed the Arctic border of this country from Russia.

“They rounded up those who didn’t want to fight and shot them in front of the newcomers,” he alleges. “They brought two prisoners who refused to go to fight and they shot them in front of everyone and buried them directly in the trenches dug by the trainees.”

CNN was unable to independently verify his account, and Wagner did not respond to a request for comment.

The 26-year-old, who says he served in the Russian military, joined Wagner as a volunteer. He moved to Ukraine less than ten days after signing his contract in July 2021, serving near Bakhmut, the frontline town in the Donetsk region. The mercenary group became a key player in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Medvedev said he reports directly to the group’s founders, Dmitry Utkin and Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin.

He refers to Prigozhin as “the devil”. If he was a Russian hero, he would have taken a gun and run with the soldiers,” Medvedev said.

Prigozhin has previously confirmed that Medvedev served in his company and said he “should have been prosecuted for attempting to mistreat prisoners”.

Medvedev told CNN he did not want to comment on what he himself had done fighting in Ukraine.

Wagner lacked tactical strategy, with troops coming up with plans on the fly, Medvedev said.

“There were no real tactics. We just received orders on the position of the adversary… There were no specific orders on how we should behave. We just planned how we were going to do it, step by step. Who would open fire, what kind of shifts we would have… How would that go, that was our problem,” he said.

Medvedev spoke to CNN from Oslo after crossing its border in a daring defection that he says saw him evade arrest “at least ten times” and dodge bullets from Russian forces. He crossed Norway by an icy lake using white camouflage to blend in, he said.

He told CNN he knew on day six of his deployment to Ukraine that he didn’t want to return for another tour after seeing troops turned into cannon fodder.

He started with 10 men under him, a number that increased once prisoners were allowed to join, he said. “There were more corpses and more and more people arriving. In the end, I had a lot of people under my command,” he said. “I couldn’t count how many. They were in constant circulation. Corpses, more prisoners, more corpses, more prisoners.

Advocacy groups say prisoners who enlisted were told their families would receive compensation of five million rubles ($71,000) if they died in the war.

But in reality, “no one wanted to pay that kind of money,” Medvedev said. He alleged that many Russians killed in action in Ukraine were “simply declared missing”.

Medvedev was at times emotional in the interview, telling CNN he had seen courage on both sides of the war.

“You know, I saw courage on both sides, on the Ukrainian side too, and our boys too… I just want them to know that,” he said.

He added that he now wanted to share his story to help bring Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin to justice.

“Sooner or later the propaganda in Russia will stop working, the people will rise up and all our leaders…will be up for grabs and a new leader will emerge.”

Wagner is often described as Putin’s underground troops. It has expanded its global footprint since its inception in 2014 and has been accused of war crimes in Africa, Syria and Ukraine.

Asked if he feared the fate of another Wagner defector, Yevgeny Nuzhin, who was murdered on camera with a hammer, Medvedev said Nuzhin’s death encouraged him to leave.

“I would just say it made me bolder, more determined to go,” he said.


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