Russian deserter in Oslo ready to spill Wagner's secrets

After fleeing across the Russian border into Norway in a harrowing escape, a former Wagner mercenary could now shed valuable light on the Russian paramilitary group's brutal methods in Ukraine.

Analysts say Andrei Medvedev, who dodged bullets fired by Russian border guards hot on his heels with attack dogs in the middle of the Arctic night, could provide important evidence in war crimes investigations against Moscow.

The 26-year-old crossed the border illegally last week to seek asylum in Norway, dashing across the frozen Pasvik river that divides Russia and the Scandinavian country in the far north.

In a video published at the weekend by rights group Gulagu.net, the Russian says he fought in Ukraine as a Wagner unit commander for between five and 10 soldiers.

He claims he deserted when the controversial group extended his four-month contract against his will in November.

"He's a person of interest, mainly as a first-hand witness within the Wagner Group... including for any future post-war tribunals on the atrocities committed in Ukraine," said Tor Bukkvoll, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies.

"He was probably in Bakhmut," a town in eastern Ukraine that Russian troops have been trying to seize for months, he told AFP.

"And he could reveal things from the inside that no one else has been able to speak about."

- Video of Wagner executions -

In an interview with news site The Insider in December, Medvedev said he knew of 10 Wagner mercenaries executed by the group because they refused to return to fight in Ukraine.

He claimed to have in his possession a video showing the killing of two of them, and said it would be published if anything bad ever happened to him.

Medvedev said one of the men under his command was Evgeny Nuzhin, who was accused of surrendering to Ukrainian forces and killed with a sledgehammer by Wagner after he was returned to Russia in a prisoner swap.

AFP has not been able to independently verify Medvedev's account.

Briefly arrested upon his arrival in Norway and then released, Medvedev has or will soon be questioned by both Norwegian immigration authorities and the criminal police (Kripos), which is taking part in an international inquiry into war crimes in Ukraine.

"He claims himself to have been a member of Wagner, and it is of interest to Kripos to obtain more information about this period," police said Tuesday.

Medvedev's Norwegian lawyer, Brynjulf Risnes, told AFP his client was "willing to speak about his experiences in the Wagner Group to people who are investigating war crimes".

- USB sticks -

According to the lawyer, the deserter was carrying several USB sticks on him during his escape to Norway.

"What he has to say is interesting because we don't have a lot of first-hand accounts from Wagner soldiers, but there are two things to take into consideration here," researcher Bukkvoll said.

"Firstly, Wagner's brutality has been notorious for a long time, even before the Ukraine conflict, including in Syria where the group killed prisoners of war," he continued.

"And Medvedev seems to have been of pretty low rank in the organisation and it is therefore unlikely that he will be able to reveal anything about what has gone on in the higher ranks."

Questions have been raised about Wagner's relationship with the Russian military, with numerous observers citing tensions between the two.

Wagner head Evgeny Prigozhin is believed to have political ambitions and is seen as using the group as a rival force to the Russian army.

While Prigozhin recently boasted that Wagner troops alone seized the town of Soledar from Ukrainian troops after fierce fighting, the Kremlin has insisted there is no conflict between it and the army.

Meanwhile, Wagner -- which has heavily recruited soldiers from Russian prisons -- reacted to Medvedev's defection with irony.

Medvedev was given a two-year suspended sentence for theft and ended up serving part of his sentence after a conflict with authorities, according to his Norwegian lawyer.

"He was to be prosecuted for having tried to assault prisoners," Prigozhin said through his press service earlier this week.

"He was until now on the wanted list. Watch out, he's very dangerous".

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