By Nerijus Adomaitis, Janis Laizans and Gwladys Fouche
OSLO (Reuters) - A former commander of Russia's Wagner mercenary group who fled to Norway told Reuters he wanted to apologise for fighting in Ukraine and was speaking out to bring the perpetrators of crimes to justice.
Andrei Medvedev, who crossed the Russian-Norwegian border on Jan. 13, said he witnessed the killing and mistreatment by Wagner of Russian convicts taken to Ukraine to fight for the group.
"Many consider me to be a scoundrel, a criminal, a murderer," Medvedev, 26, said in an interview. "First of all, repeatedly, and again, I would like to apologise, and although I don't know how it would be received, I want to say I'm sorry.
"Yes, I served in Wagner. There are some moments (in my story) that people don't like, that I joined them at all, but nobody is born smart."
Medvedev added he had decided to speak out "to help to ensure that perpetrators are punished in certain cases, and I will try to make my contribution, at least a small bit".
He cited one incident in which he said he witnessed two people who did not want to fight being shot dead in front of newly released convicts who had been enrolled in Wagner.
Asked about other incidents he witnessed, he said he could not comment on them at this stage as a Norwegian police investigation about war crimes was ongoing.
Reuters was not immediately able to verify his claims.
Kripos, Norway's national criminal police service, which has responsibility for investigating war crimes, has begun questioning Medvedev about his experiences in Ukraine.
He has a status as a witness and is not suspected of anything apart from the illegal border crossing. Medvedev said he had nothing to hide from the police, adding "I did not commit any crimes, I was just a combatant".
The Wagner group said Medvedev had worked in a "Norwegian unit" of Wagner and had "mistreated prisoners".
"Be careful, he's very dangerous," the group said in an emailed statement to Reuters, reiterating previous comments made by its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, about Medvedev.
Wagner forces have been locked in a bloody battle of attrition against Ukrainian forces in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region.
At Wagner, Medvedev said he led a squad, taking orders from a platoon commander and planning combat missions. He said he saw "acts of courage from both sides".
Medvedev said he was scared that he could be executed by someone on his own side at any time.
"The scariest thing? To realise that there are people who consider themselves to be your compatriots, and who could come and kill you in an instant, or on someone's orders," he said. "Your own people. That probably was the scariest thing."
Medvedev left Wagner at the end of his four-month contract, even though his superiors told him he had to serve longer, he said.
Medvedev said he fled Russia last month over the Arctic border, climbing through barbed-wire fences and evading a border patrol with dogs, hearing Russian guards firing shots as he ran through a forest and over the frozen river that separates the two countries.
FROM ORPHAN TO JOINING WAGNER
Medvedev was born in the region of Tomsk in Siberia. He said he was placed in an orphanage when he was around age 12, after the death of his mother and the disappearance of his father.
He said he was drafted in the Russian military in 2014, aged 18, and served with the Ulyanovsk-based 31st Airborne Brigade.
"That was my first deployment in Donbas," Medvedev added, declining to give more details.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine began in 2014 after a pro-Russian president was toppled in Ukraine's Maidan Revolution and Russia annexed Crimea, while Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas - comprised of Donetsk and Luhansk - sought to break away from Kyiv's control.
Medvedev said he had served several jail terms, including one for a robbery, and when he came out of prison the last time, he decided to join the Wagner group, in July 2022.
Medvedev said he hadn't been recruited straight out of the prison, but decided to join because he realised he would likely be mobilised in the regular Russian armed forces anyway.
He signed a four-month contract for a monthly salary of some 250,000 roubles ($3,575). He crossed into Ukraine on July 16, he said, and fought near Bakhmut.
"It was fucked up. The roads to Artemovsk were littered with the corpses of our soldiers," he said, using the Russian place name for Bakhmut. "The losses were heavy. ... I saw many friends die."
A special report published by Reuters last week found a graveyard in southern Russia, burial site for men who were convicts who had been recruited by Wagner to fight in Ukraine.
($1 = 69.9305 roubles)
(Reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis, Janis Laizans and Gwladys Fouche in Oslo; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien, Leslie Adler and Frances Kerry)