Wagner Group Commander Andrei Medvedev revealed the reason he fled his unit in the mercenary army, which continues to assist Russia in its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the Ukraine “special military operation” on February 24, 2022, aiming for a quick victory against his Eastern European neighbor, whose military was perceived as much smaller than his own. However, after nearly 11 months of combat, Russia has struggled to achieve substantial military gains, allowing Ukraine to retake control of key areas throughout the fall and winter.
Amid mounting losses, Putin has relied on the Wagner Group to bolster his military, sending the paramilitary organization into key battles in hopes of turning the tide of the war in his favor.
The Wagner Group, founded by Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been viewed as being aligned with Putin for years—though the Kremlin has sought to distance itself from the group, which is known for allegedly disregarding human rights. In recent weeks, they have made headlines for leading Russian advances in Soledar and Bakhmut.
Medvedev, who served in a leadership post in the organization, has fled the Wagner Group and is now seeking asylum in Norway. He crossed the border last Thursday and is reportedly prepared to testify against Prigozhin. In a newly published interview with The Guardian, Medvedev explained his reasons for leaving the group.
He told the British newspaper he “grew disaffected” with the organization after witnessing at least 10 killings of pro-Russia soldiers who allegedly disobeyed commands, as well as the treatment of Russian prisoners.
“The commanders took them to a shooting field and they were shot in front of everyone. Sometimes one guy was shot, sometimes they would be shot in pairs,” he told the publication.
Medvedev said the alleged abuse “shocked us to the core.”
“The prisoners are used as cannon fodder, like meat. I was given a group of convicts. In my platoon, only three out of 30 men survived,” Medvedev said. “We were then given more prisoners, and many of those died too.”
He said he decided to flee last July after his contract was renewed without his consent and that he is “scared for [his] life” for speaking out against the mercenary group.
Sean McFate, a senior fellow for the Atlantic Council, told Newsweek on Tuesday that he was unsurprised to see Medvedev flee, as troops have realized they are “cannon fodder” for the Russian military, as well as amid growing concerns about how Wagner troops are disciplined.
“The way Wagner maintains discipline in the ranks is not by court marshal or a counseling statement,” he said. “They do it via sledgehammer—literally.”
Medvedev Could Face Threat if More Wagner Troops Follow: McFate
Amid Medvedev’s concerns that he could be at risk due to his public defection from Wagner, McFate said he has a “legitimate concern,” though he isn’t certain Wagner will “go after” Medvedev. He said a response could be triggered if more fighters follow suit.
“If this guy’s defection—which is now very international news—inspires other people in Wagner to do the same thing, then it’s possible Wagner might send a team to kidnap him, drag him back in and explode his head via sledgehammer as a message that you can run, but you can’t hide,” McFate said.
While McFate expects that Norway could make a deal requiring Medvedev to cooperate with international war crime trials, he cast doubt that Russia would care about any rebuke to his testimony, as they generally disregard international law.
“But he’s going to make some noise,” he said. “And it’s not for nothing either.”
Javed Ali, a University of Michigan professor specializing in international policy and diplomacy, told Newsweek he was also unsurprised by Medvedev’s remarks, pointing to “the level of recklessness and brutality of the Wagner Group.”
“The Wagner Group’s paramilitary nature and disregard of international human rights and acceptable standards of military conduct also demonstrate the depths Putin’s regime will pursue, regardless of the destructive nature of their actions,” he wrote in a statement to Newsweek.
Newsweek reached out to the Russian Ministry of Defense for comment.