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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Russian mercenary flees to Norway

Police in Norway’s northern region of Finnmark arrested a man in the middle of the night on Friday, and charged him with illegally crossing the Russian-Norwegian border southeast of Kirkenes. Norwegian media report a far more dramatic version, identifying the man as a Russian fleeing the brutal Wagner mercenary group, and dodging bullets from Russian police as he ran across the frozen river separating Russia and Norway.

The border area between Norway and Russia is under constant patrol, here from an observation tower at Vardefjell. Late last week, a Russian man nonetheless managed to cross a frozen river dividing the two countries that now are at odds over Russia’s war on Ukraine. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Joakim Salmelid

Police confirmed the man’s arrest by Norwegian military border patrols and police in a press release just before the weekend. Tarjei Sirma-Tellefsen, chief of the Finnmark Police District, also confirmed that the man has sought asylum in Norway.

“We’re working to confirm the identify of the man, and question him,” Sirma-Tellefsen stated. “The man sought help at a private home in the border area and we were alerted by Russian border partrols about the sightings of tracks (in the snow) that could indicate someone had illegally crossed the border.” Sirma-Tellefsen described the man’s arrest near Skrøytnes in Pasvikdalen as “undramatic.” An investigation into events leading to his arrest was underway.

Residents of the Pasvik area reported seeing an unusual amount of activity on the Russian side of the border just before the man’s arrest in Norway. They told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that they could see snowmobiles, floodlights “and lots of personnel” on the Russian side of the Pasvik River that’s relatively wide in that portion of the valley.

The Barents Observer, a Kirkenes-based newssite specializing in coverage of the Far North and especially Russian- and border issues, reported that the man now in custody claims to be a “defector” who cut through barbed wire fence outside the Russian town of Nikel and ran over the frozen Pasvik River after midnight late last week. He also claims to be a former mercenary in the St. Petersburg-based Wagner Group, and that Russian border guards from the state Russian police agency FSB fired shots at him as he fled Russia during the dark winter night.

He further claims to be willing to testify against the wealthy leader of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who told newspaper Aftenposten during the weekend that some members of his group seek a state coup in Norway. Prigozhin is known as an ultra-right-wing extremist who’s been recruiting jailed convicted murderers and other criminals to fight for Russian against Ukraine. They’re reportedly promised pardons for their crimes if they survive battle for at least six months.

Those who try to escape from the group, meanwhile, reportedly risk severe punishment and even death at the hands of other mercenaries in the Wagner Group, which has a reputation for brutality both in warfare and internal affairs. Prigozhin told Aftenposten that his mercenary group includes 67 Norwegians, and their goal is “to return to Norway after the end of the conflict in Ukraine to organize a military coup, since they correctly believe that Norway historically is the Vikings’ homeland. In their opinion, “Norway is for Vikings. Homosexuals don’t belong there.”

Norway’s police intelligence agency PST all but scoffed at Prigozhin’s claims, calling them groundless and untrue. “PST has no information that these claims (of so many Norwegians joining Wagner) are correct,” Martin Bernsen of PST told Aftenposten. It’s also widely believed that Wagner’s main goal is to spread fear and promote highly authoritarian societies.

The Barents Observer reported, meanwhile, that the man was quickly flown from Kirkenes to Oslo, where asylum applications are handled. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported Sunday evening that PST has been alerted to the arrest, with Bernsen saying it will “be natural” to follow his case and “evaluate” whether to pursue it.

The man has already claimed in Russian media that the FSB also sent dogs after him as “bullets whizzed by” him, but refrained from following him across the river “probably” for fear of thin ice. He’s believed to be the first of Wagner’s commanders to flee Russia for Europe.

NRK and Russian media identified him as Andrei Medvedev, who left the combat group of Wagner after his contract ended. The Barents Observer noted that he also could become one of the first Russian witnesses to war crimes.

He’s already been appointed an attorney in Oslo to assist in his asylum case. Norway’s border commissioner in Finnmark reportedly has had a meeting with his Russian counterpart over the incident, which is normal procedure. “This meeting is part of the bilateral relations between Norway and Russia and is not part of the police investigation,” commissioner Jens-Arne Høilund told NRK. Russian authorities have not asked for his extradition.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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