A former Wagnerian mercenary told CNN in an exclusive interview on Monday that the atrocities he witnessed in Ukraine eventually prompted him to defect.
Wagner fighters are often sent into battle without guidance and the company is ruthless with reluctant recruits, Andrei Medvedev told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in the Norwegian capital Oslo. is seeking asylum there after crossing the country’s Arctic border.
“They would surround those who didn’t want to fight and shoot them in front of the newcomers,” he claimed. “They brought in two prisoners who refused to fight and they shot them in front of everyone and buried them in trenches dug by the trainees.”
CNN could not independently verify his account, and Wagner did not respond to a request for comment.
The 26-year-old said he had previously served in the Russian army and joined Wagner as a volunteer. In July 2022, he entered Ukraine less than 10 days after signing and served near the front-line city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region. The mercenary group has become 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.
He called Prigozhin a “devil”. If he was a Russian hero, he would take up his gun and run away with the soldiers,” Medvedev said.
Prigozhin had previously confirmed that Medvedev had served in his company and said he “should be prosecuted for attempting to mistreat prisoners”.
Medvedev told CNN he did not want to comment on what he did while fighting in Ukraine.
Medvedev said Wagner lacked tactical strategy and that troops would come up with plans on the fly.
“There’s no real tactics at all. We’re just given orders about where our opponents are … there’s no clear order on how we should behave. We just plan how we’re going to do it step by step. Who’s going to fire, what kind of shift we’re going to have …how it turns out is our question,” he said.
Speaking to CNN from Oslo after crossing the border in a daring defection, Medvedev said he had seen him evade arrest and dodge bullets from Russian troops “at least ten times”. He used white camouflage to blend into the icy lake to enter Norway, he said.
He told CNN that he knew on day six of his deployment in Ukraine that he didn’t want to come back after seeing the military reduced to cannon fodder.
He said he started with 10 people and that number increased once prisoners were allowed in. “There were more bodies, more and more people were coming in. In the end, I had a lot of people under me,” he said. “I can’t count how many. They keep circulating. Bodies, more prisoners, more bodies, more prisoners.”
Prisoners who enlist are told their families will receive 5 million rubles ($71,000) in reparations if they die in battle, advocacy groups say.
But in reality “nobody wants to pay that much,” Medvedev said. He claimed that many Russians who had been killed fighting in Ukraine had “just been declared missing”.
Medvedev, sometimes emotional in the interview, told CNN he saw courage on both sides of the war.
“You know, I’ve seen courage on both sides, on the Ukrainian side, our kids … 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 Russian propaganda will stop working, the people will stand up, all our leaders … will be contested and new leaders will emerge.”
Wagner is often described as Putin’s secret service. Since its founding in 2014, it has expanded its footprint globally and has been accused of war crimes in Africa, Syria and Ukraine.
Asked if he worried about the fate of Yevgeny Nuzhin, another Wagner defector who was killed with a sledgehammer on camera, Medvedev said Nuzhin’s death gave him the courage to leave.
“I just want to say it made me bolder and more determined to leave,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the year Medvedev entered Ukraine as a Wagner recruit.