May 26, 2024

Wagner Group

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Andrei Medvedev fought with Russia’s Wagner mercenaries in Ukraine, then requested asylum in Norway. The authorities there must now weigh his plea against solidarity with Ukraine.

A man in a baseball cap and jacket leaning against a building.
Andrei Medvedev, who fought with Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, is seeking asylum in Norway, while providing information on Wagner’s fight in Ukraine. Credit…Andrea Gjestvang for The New York Times
Sipping a $12 beer in one of the world’s wealthiest capitals, Andrei Medvedev reflected on the question hanging over him since he left the battlefields of Ukraine: Is he a hero or a war criminal?

He claims to have deserted from Russia’s notorious Wagner mercenary force during the monumental battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, and later to have escaped his native Russia by running across a frozen Arctic river. Now in Norway, Mr. Medvedev, 26, is seeking asylum, while providing information on Wagner to Norwegian authorities.

Since arriving in the country in January, Mr. Medvedev has voluntarily attended about a dozen interviews with Norwegian police officers investigating war crimes in Ukraine, including his potential role in them. Mr. Medvedev has described killing Ukrainians in combat and witnessing summary executions of comrades accused of cowardice. He claims that he did not participate or witness war crimes such as killings of prisoners of war and civilians.

“Yes, I have killed, I saw comrades die. It was war,” he said in an interview at an Oslo bar. “I have nothing to hide.”

His unlikely journey has made Mr. Medvedev one of only a handful of publicly known Russian combatants to seek protection in Europe after participating in the invasion. His asylum request is now forcing Norway to decide a case that pits the country’s humanitarian ethos against an increasingly assertive national security policy and solidarity with Ukraine.

To his lawyer, the credible threat of revenge facing Mr. Medvedev if he were sent back home qualifies him for asylum. And some Norwegian politicians have said that encouraging soldiers like Mr. Medvedev to defect would weaken Russia’s army and hasten the end of the war.

But as Norway evaluates his claim, it is facing pressure from activists in Ukraine and Western Europe, who say giving safe haven in Europe to Russian fighters, especially mercenaries like Mr. Medvedev, fails to hold Russians accountable for the invasion. And the former fighter may have complicated his own request with bar fights and detentions in Norway, and by briefly posting a video on YouTube suggesting he wanted to return to Russia.

More broadly, Mr. Medvedev’s case puts a spotlight on a policy dilemma that European governments have largely avoided grappling with in public: How should the region treat Russian deserters, and the hundreds of thousands of combatants in Russia’s war in Ukraine, in general?

“It goes to the core of who we are in Europe,” said Cecilie Hellestveit, an expert in armed conflict law affiliated with Norway’s human rights watchdog and a former member of the country’s asylum appeal board. “It forces us to re-evaluate our approach to human rights in a way that we have not been willing to do until now.”

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Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags in front of buildings.
Ukrainian flags in near the Russian Embassy in Oslo. Credit…Andrea Gjestvang for The New York Times

The European Union, and affiliated states like Norway, have had to balance humanitarian needs with war crimes accountability before, most recently in processing immigration claims of people who fought in the Balkan and Syrian civil wars.

But the scale of the war in Ukraine, its proximity to the European Union, and the participation of two conventional armies means that the Russian invasion presents a much greater challenge to the region’s asylum system, Ms. Hellestveit said.

Four months after Mr. Medvedev requested asylum, his claim remains pending. Norway’s immigration agency said all asylum cases filed by Russians who fled to evade military service were on hold while they analyze the human rights conditions in the country. The agency said it could not comment on individual applications for privacy reasons.

Some humanitarian law experts in Norway say Mr. Medvedev’s unresolved request reflects the government’s reluctance to bring further attention to a case that could divide the public, get ahead of the policies of other European states and strain relations with Kyiv. Norway has been a fervent supporter of the Ukrainian cause, committing $7.5 billion worth of economic and military aid, and accepting about 40,000 Ukrainian refugees.

“This case has a lot of conflicting rights, a lot of conflicting obligations and a lot of conflicting politics,” said Paal Nesse, the head of Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers, a nonprofit providing legal aid to applicants.

Norway and E.U. countries have struggled to formulate a common approach for asylum claims submitted by Russians who have fled the country to avoid military service, a much larger group of applicants than men who engaged in combat, like Mr. Medvedev.

The European Union’s Agency for Asylum said in a written response to questions that it is up to member states to decide who deserves protection.

Pavel Filatiev, a former Russian paratrooper who requested asylum in France after fighting in Ukraine, said he was waiting for a decision eight months after submitting his application. A third publicly known Russian deserter in Europe, a former army mechanic named Nikita Chibrin, has had a pending asylum claim in Spain since November.

The legal uncertainty, financial problems and social isolation are difficult to bear, Mr. Filatiev said in a phone interview, but he added that he considered himself fortunate and was grateful to his French hosts.

“I understand that my decision to leave will always haunt me,” he said.

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A man in a white shirt sitting at a restaurant table.
Pavel Filatiev in Paris in September. A former Russian paratrooper who fought in Ukraine, he has requested asylum in France. Credit…Lewis Joly/Associated Press

Mr. Medvedev’s has a troubled history of antisocial behavior. Already, he has been detained twice in Norway for getting into fights in bars and once in Sweden for entering the country illegally. (He was returned to Norway.) In Russia, he spent four years in jail for robbery and getting into fights, according to court records.

People who know him have said those actions could be a consequence of a lifetime of trauma: in a violent family home, a Siberian orphanage and Russian jails, and on Ukrainian battlefields.

In addition to his run-ins with the law, Mr. Medvedev said he had also repeatedly clashed in Oslo with Ukrainians, most recently while visiting a local Soviet military memorial on Victory Day.

Such run-ins have underlined the tensions between the Russian defectors and Ukrainian refugees across Europe. Natalia Lutsyk, the head of the Ukrainian Association in Norway, said the lack of international cooperation prevented Norway and other nations from thoroughly investigating war crimes committed in Ukraine.

“Thus, Medvedev and his companions remain unpunished,” she added.

The New York Times spent several weeks interviewing Mr. Medvedev and researching his personal history since he left the front in November and went into hiding in Russia. His account of his military service has contained contradictory or unverifiable claims. Some basic facts of his life, however, have been corroborated by public records and interviews with acquaintances.

The weight of this evidence shows that Mr. Medvedev enlisted with Wagner in July 2022, two days after finishing his latest prison sentence.

Wagner’s founder, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, in April called Mr. Medvedev a “jackass who spent two days in Wagner, who can’t identify anyone.” After his escape to Norway, Mr. Prigozhin called him dangerous. He has not publicly threatened Mr. Medvedev.

In an interview in Oslo, Mr. Medvedev described his new living conditions, provided mostly by the Norwegian state. According to him, they include a house, home visits by a Norwegian language teacher, an integration assistant, ski and mountain bike trips, and “Taco Saturdays” with a personal security detail.

He also claims to be a subject of a bidding war between filmmakers, an assertion that could not be verified.

But days after the interview, Mr. Medvedev declared that he had contacted the Russian Embassy to get help returning home.

“I hope that I could find peace and calm here, that I could leave behind the politics, the war, the army,” he said in a video published on YouTube. “It was not to be.”

He later deleted the videos and declined to speak again when contacted by phone.

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A memorial depicting a soldier in front of flowers and near graves.
Mr. Medvedev said he repeatedly clashed in public with Ukrainians, most recently during his visit to a Soviet memorial in Oslo during Victory Day. Credit…Andrea Gjestvang for The New York Times

His lawyer, Brynjulf Risnes, said his public comments should not influence the asylum claim, which is decided on humanitarian grounds. But Mr. Medvedev’s violent past and controversial behavior, which has turned him into a minor local celebrity, have confused and alienated many Norwegians, sapping sympathy for Russian defectors.

Under Norwegian law, refusing to fight in an illegal war may grant a right to asylum. However, this right does not apply to war criminals, and local prosecutors can charge people who they believe have committed war crimes elsewhere.

A Norwegian criminal police spokesman said Mr. Medvedev was a witness, not a suspect, in its investigation of war crimes in Ukraine, and that, to date, officers “have not found grounds for charges.”

Mr. Medvedev said his cooperation had helped investigators locate Wagner facilities in Ukraine and Russia and map the group’s structure.

The case is also being followed by Ukrainian officials, who are conducting their own investigation of Mr. Medvedev. Shortly after his arrival in Norway, Ukraine’s ambassador in Oslo told local news media that her government could request his extradition.

Such a request would present Norway with another dilemma, forcing it to choose between a show of support for an ally and upholding the basic principle of its asylum law. This law states that an asylum seeker cannot be sent to a country where they may not get a fair trial.

The office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general said in a written response to questions that it checked all Russian servicemen who arrive in foreign countries for potential participation in war crimes, and that it had requested Norway’s legal assistance in investigating Mr. Medvedev.

Mr. Medvedev said he had refused to see Ukrainian investigators who asked to meet him in Norway.

“They are always after me,” he said. “I’m helping them to end this war.”

Constant Méheut contributed reporting from Paris, Alina Lobzina from London and Natalia Yermak from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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कथा सुनाने का 10 लाख फीस लेने वाले ढोंगी पाखंडी लोग कहते हैं कि सब मोह माया छोड़कर ईश्वर में ध्यान लगाओ लेकिन खुद का ध्यान 10 लाख पर टिका है। यदि आप देवकीनंदन से कथा करवाते हैं तो उनकी फीस 12 लाख से लेकर 15 लाख तक है। अनिरुद्धाचार्य की फीस भी 15 लाख से 20 लाख है। जया किशोरी, धीरेन्द्र कृष्ण शास्त्री इत्यादि कथावाचकों से कथा करवाने के लिए कम से कम 15 से 20 लाख तक का खर्चा आना Normal है। उसके बाद यह सभी कथावाचक आपको प्रवचन मे बुद्धि प्रदान करते है सब मोह माया है भौतिक सुख का त्याग कर ईश्वर की भक्ति करो, ईश्वर की भक्ति मे परम सुख है भले खुद बिना मर्सिडीज एक कदम भी ना चले।

Ukraine, in the meantime, has trained new formations, armed and equipped by the West, and is expected to launch a broader counteroffensive somewhere along the roughly 600-mile front line.

An aerial view of the devastated and mostly abandoned city of Bakhmut, with high-rise buildings partially destroyed and charred, their windows blown out, and rubble strewn between them.
A drone image of the destruction in Bakhmut taken on Friday while embedded with the 93rd Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Army.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
An aerial view of the devastated and mostly abandoned city of Bakhmut, with high-rise buildings partially destroyed and charred, their windows blown out, and rubble strewn between them.

This has Russia in somewhat of a defensive crouch, its forces stretched, as they build fortifications and prepare for the war’s next phase.

“We’ll probably see more localized tactical assaults,” Rob Lee, a military analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said of Russian forces. “But Russia will likely primarily focus on defense and prepare for Ukraine’s counteroffensive.”

Russian forces have spent much of the winter and spring digging in and preparing for Ukraine to strike, though some units have continued to attack in areas such as Kreminna north of Bakhmut and Avdiivka to the south. Those assaults have gained the Russians little ground, and instead have decimated the population centers in their path while depleting their own ranks.

In the south, which some military analysts predict will be the focus of Ukraine’s offensive, Russian forces have dug an intricate network of primary and secondary trench lines and minefields to thwart any Ukrainian advance, according to satellite photos and analysts.

If Ukraine does manage to retake territory, analysts say, that could give Russia’s far larger air force an upper hand as Ukrainian troops push forward, outside the range of their air defenses.

Further to the southwest, Ukraine now holds the southern port city of Kherson after reclaiming it in November. But with the Dnipro River serving as a natural boundary, Russian artillery units can shell the city from the eastern side with little risk of being overrun by Ukrainian ground forces, given the difficulty of crossing a wide, exposed waterway.

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Two Ukrainian soldiers in combat fatigues, one of them holding a mortar shell in each hand, crouch behind a mortar.
Members of the 93rd Mechanized Brigade firing an 82-mm mortar at Russian positions in Bakhmut.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Two Ukrainian soldiers in combat fatigues, one of them holding a mortar shell in each hand, crouch behind a mortar.

To the north, Ukrainian-backed proxy units have penetrated the Russian border in recent days, seizing a small patch of territory in what is considered a propaganda move to tie up Russian forces and embarrass the Kremlin following the seizure of Bakhmut.

But the battle for Bakhmut came at a significant cost for Russia and Ukraine and will weigh heavily on what comes next. Both sides made outsize investments in men and matériel to take and hold a relatively small and now-devastated city, which had a prewar population of more than 70,000.

Such is the nature of the 15-month-old war: Both militaries, still rooted in Soviet-style tactics, continue to rely heavily on artillery, tanks and limited troop advances to seize and control ground.

“The battle for Bakhmut is less important in terms of territory and more in its impact on both forces and what it reveals about them,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington,

Russian forces were defeated on three fronts last year — around Kyiv, in the northeastern Kharkiv region and at Kherson. Moscow is nursing its exhausted and casualty-ridden formations after brutal urban combat in Bakhmut. Ukraine, too, is plagued by casualties, but is digging in along far more favorable and higher terrain outside Bakhmut.

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Two women carrying shopping bags walk past a damaged bus stop with sandbags piled around it.
Women at a sandbagged bus stop damaged by Russian shelling in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson this month. Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

In recent days, Ukrainian forces have made small gains to the north and south of Bakhmut, putting their forces in a better position to prevent Russian troops from advancing further. The head of the Wagner paramilitary force, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, whose fighters were primarily responsible for the seizure of Bakhmut, has pledged to pull them from the city and turn its defense over to Russia’s uniformed ranks, risking a disorganized turnover of troops.

Wagner “isn’t really designed for defensive operations,” Mr. Lee said.

Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner group has proved to be one of Ukraine’s most formidable foes and it remains unclear how its departure from the battlefield could affect Ukraine’s ability to put pressure on Bakhmut and beyond.

Military analysts, Western intelligence agencies and Ukrainian officials have argued over the strategic significance of the Bakhmut campaign for months. Moscow could have invested the resources elsewhere on the front line instead of wasting lives and ammunition for a few miles of land, they said. Kyiv could have retreated earlier, saving its battalions, brigades and supplies for future offensives.

Both sides’ decisions to stand and fight will have lasting effects on their future maneuvers.

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Across an open field bounded by trees and a fence, a plume of thick smoke rises to the sky.
Smoke rising near Bakhmut last week. Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Across an open field bounded by trees and a fence, a plume of thick smoke rises to the sky.

The battle for Bakhmut was unique in that the Wagner group relied on formations of prison inmates to attack Ukrainian trenches, to both overwhelm their defenses and expose Ukraine’s firing positions. Russia’s ability to replenish its ranks, often with undertrained forces, had at one point been one of its advantages as it has forced Ukraine to risk its better-trained units to stop raw troops the Russians treated as expendable.

But Ukraine fought back, despite losing ground in the city and taking an outsized number of casualties. They took advantage of the open fields and tree lines on the outskirts, and used Western-supplied precision artillery such as HIMARS rocket launchers and 155-mm howitzers to wound and kill Russian troops at a distance.

Now, Moscow has to decide whether to try to advance west of Bakhmut. A few miles away lies the town of Chasiv Yar, but Ukraine can pull back to high ground in between, where it could fire down at advancing Russian troops. More likely, the Russians will focus on defending Bakhmut and its approaches.

The aftershocks of the battle for Bakhmut are not yet fully known, both in terms of overall casualties on both sides or how much equipment or ammunition was lost or destroyed. Western estimates early this year put Russia’s casualties in wounded and dead at about 200,000 since its invasion, and Ukraine’s are thought to be similar. The fight for Bakhmut has since claimed thousands more casualties.

“This chapter will close, even as fighting continues in the fields outside the city, but it speaks volumes about the Ukrainian will to fight, though soldiers may wonder whether the fight for Bakhmut was driven by political considerations over military ones,” Mr. Kofman said.A tall pile of bricks and other debris lies behind an open gate, where bombardment struck a school, with badly damaged buildings on either side.

A school hit by bombardment in Chasiv Yar, Ukraine, near Bakhmut, last month.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times
A tall pile of bricks and other debris lies behind an open gate, where bombardment struck a school, with badly damaged buildings on either side.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a Ukraine correspondent and a former Marine infantryman. @tmgneff

A top Ukrainian official essentially acknowledged that the devastated city had been lost. Thousands of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers died there, but the cost for Moscow was especially steep, experts say.Russia Claims Bakhmut, but Some See a ‘Pyrrhic Victory’