A former Wagner commander describes brutality and incompetence in the war
(CNN) — A former Wagner Group mercenary says the brutality he witnessed in Ukraine ultimately led him to defect, in an exclusive interview with CNN on Monday.
Wagner’s fighters were often sent into battle with little strategy, and the company’s treatment of reluctant recruits was ruthless, Andrei Medvedev told CNN’s Anderson Cooper from the Norwegian capital Oslo, where he is seeking asylum after crossing the arctic border of that country from Russia.
“They rounded up those who didn’t want to fight and shot them in front of the new arrivals,” he alleges. “They brought two prisoners who refused to go fight and shot them in front of everyone and buried them right in the trenches that the apprentices dug.”
CNN has not been able to independently verify his account, and Wagner has not responded to a request for comment.
The 26-year-old, who says he previously served in the Russian army, 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 become a key player in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Medvedev said he reported directly to the group’s founders, Dmitry Utkin and Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin.
He refers to Prigozhin as “the devil”. If he were a Russian hero, he would have grabbed a gun and fled with the soldiers, Medvedev said.
Prigozhin previously confirmed that Medvedev had worked at his company, saying he “should have been prosecuted for trying to mistreat prisoners.”
Medvedev told CNN that he did not want to comment on what he himself had done while fighting in Ukraine.
Wagner lacked a tactical strategy, and troops made plans as they went, Medvedev said.
“There were no real tactics at all. We had just received orders on the position of the adversary… There were no definite orders on how we should behave. We just planned how we would do it, step by step. Who would open fire, what kind of shifts would we have… How it would turn out, that would be our problem, ”he said.
Medvedev spoke to CNN from Oslo after crossing its border in a daring defection that he says led him to evade arrest “at least ten times” and dodge bullets from Russian forces. He crossed into Norway over a frozen lake wearing white camouflage to blend in, he said.
He told CNN that, on the sixth day of his deployment to Ukraine, he knew he did not want to return for another tour after witnessing troops become cannon fodder.
He started with 10 men under his command, a number that grew once prisoners were allowed in, he said. “There were more corpses 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. Corpses, more prisoners, more corpses, more prisoners”.
Advocacy groups say prisoners who enlisted were told their families would receive a payment of 5 million rubles ($71,000) if they died in the war.
But in reality “no one wanted to pay that money,” Medvedev said. He claimed that many Russians who died fighting in the Ukraine were “simply declared missing.”
Medvedev was emotional at times in the interview, telling CNN he saw courage on both sides of the war.
“You know, I saw courage on both sides, also on the Ukrainian side, and also in our guys…I just want them to know that,” he said.
He added that he now wants 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 at stake and a new leader will emerge.”
The Wagner Group is often described as Putin’s unofficial troops. It has expanded its presence globally since its inception in 2014 and has been accused of war crimes in Africa, Syria, and Ukraine.
Asked if he fears the fate of another Wagner defector, Yevgeny Nuzhin, who was killed on camera with a sledgehammer, Medvedev said Nuzhin’s death encouraged him to leave.
“I would just say it made me bolder, more determined to leave,” he said.
CNN’s Muhammad Darwish and Katharina Krebs reported from Oslo, Norway. CNN’s Tara John wrote from New York.