A former Wagner mercenary says the brutality he witnessed in Ukraine ultimately pushed him to defect, in an exclusive CNN interview on Monday.
Wagner 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 crossing that country’s arctic border from Russia.
“They would round up those who did not want to fight and shoot them in front of newcomers,” he alleges. “They brought two prisoners who refused to go fight and they shot them in front of everyone and buried them right in the trenches that were dug by the trainees.”
The 26-year-old, who says he previously served in the Russian military, joined Wagner as a volunteer. He crossed into Ukraine less than 10 days after signing his contract in July 2022, serving near Bakhmut, the frontline city in the Donetsk region. The mercenary group has emerged as a key player in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Medvedev said he reported directly to the group’s founders, Dmitry Utkin and Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, whom he describes as “the devil.”
“If (Prigozhin) was a Russian hero, he would have taken a gun and run with the soldiers,” Medvedev said.
In a statement emailed to CNN on Tuesday, Prigozhin declined to comment on “military issues” and described Wagner as an “exemplary military organization that complies with all the necessary laws and rules of modern wars.” The Wagner boss has previously confirmed that Medvedev had served in his company, and said that he “should have been prosecuted for attempting to mistreat prisoners.”
Medvedev told CNN that he did not want to comment on what he’d done himself while fighting in Ukraine.
‘No real tactics’
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 into Norway over an icy lake using white camouflage to blend in, he said.
He told CNN that he knew by the sixth day of his deployment in Ukraine that he did not want to return for another tour after witnessing troops being turned into cannon fodder.
He started off with 10 men under his command, a number that grew once prisoners were allowed to join, he said. “There were more dead bodies, and more, and more, people coming in. 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. Dead bodies, more prisoners, more dead bodies, more prisoners.”
Wagner lacked a tactical strategy, with troops coming up with plans on the fly, Medvedev said.
“There were no real tactics at all. We just got orders about the position of the adversary…There were no definite orders about how we should behave. We just planned how we would go about it, step by step. Who would open fire, what kind of shifts we would have…How it how it how it would turn out that was our problem,” he said.
Advocacy groups say prisoners who enlisted were told their families would receive a pay-out of five million rubles ($71,000) if they died in the war.
But in reality “nobody wanted to pay that kind of money,” Medvedev said. He alleged that many Russians who died fighting in Ukraine were “just declared missing.”
Prigozhin dismissed the accusation in his response to CNN, saying “to date, not a single case of non-payment of insurance pay-outs has been recorded in the Wagner Group.”
‘I saw courage on both sides’
Medvedev was emotional at times in the interview, telling CNN that he saw courage on both sides of the war.
“You know, I saw courage on both sides, on the Ukrainian side as well, and our boys too… I just want them to know that,” he said.
He added that he wants to now share his story in order 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 off-the-books troops. It has expanded its footprint globally since its creation in 2014, and has been accused of war crimes in Africa, Syria and Ukraine.
When asked if he fears the fate meted on another Wagner defector, Yevgeny Nuzhin, who was murdered on camera with a sledgehammer, Medvedev said Nuzhin’s death emboldened him to leave.
“I would just say that it made me bolder, more determined to leave,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the year in which Medvedev entered Ukraine as a Wagner recruit.
CNN’s Muhammad Darwish and Katharina Krebs reported from Oslo, Norway. CNN’s Tara John wrote from New York.