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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Questions rise around Russian deserter

UPDATED: A Russian deserter who was picked up by Norwegian soldiers on patrol along Norway’s border earlier this month is now facing lots of questions from police and security officials in Oslo. Skepticism has risen around his story of a dramatic escape from Russia, and some even wonder whether he may be a double agent sent into Norway by Russian officials.

This young Norwegian soldier on border patrol duty in Northern Norway led the unit that picked up another young man who’d allegedly managed to run several kilometers over the frozen Pasvik River separating Norway from Russia. “We saw him from around 200-300 meters away,” said the soldier identified only as “Ola.” “He walked down the road. He turned and headed towards us.” They took him to the Pasvik border station not far from Kirkenes, and the Russian who immediately sought asylum was then flown south to Oslo. PHOTO: Forsvaret

Police confirmed on Monday that the young man, named Andrei Medvedev, had been arrested the day before and moved from an undisclosed location in Oslo. He was confined at an internment center near Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen that’s normally used to detain illegal immigrants before they’re sent out of the country, until being released on Wednesday. He remains under restrictions, however, regarding his location for security reasons.

State police agency KRIPOS confirmed he had undergone questioning, but wouldn’t reveal what was discussed. Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Tuesday that the  human rights organization Gulaga.net, through which Medvedev has channeled his communication since fleeing over the border, claimed he had been handcuffed and told he’d be deported.

His defense attorney in Oslo, Brynjulf Risnes, denied that to newspaper VG and state broadcaster NRK. “Deportation hasn’t been a theme now and it’s unthinkable because he has sought asylum,” Risnes told VG. Risnes added that “there are good reasons to believe what he says” regarding his alleged escape from the Wagner mercenary group that’s fighting for Russia in Ukraine. Medvedev has also claimed he’d be willing to testify about alleged war crimes committed by the Wagner group.

Aftenposten has noted that Medvedev’s story about fleeing Wagner and Russia has only been told through videos published on Gulaga.net by its leader, the Russian activist Vladimir Osechkin. Others question how Medvedev, as a military deserter, could have managed to travel from Ukraine through Russia to the northern city of Murmansk and then through various Russian checkpoints from Murmansk to the heavily guarded border area aound Nikel. Medvedev and Osechkin claim he did have help from undisclosed sources. His story of running across the frozen Pasvik River that separates Russia and Norway in the middle of the night, while being chased by dogs and shot at, has puzzled residents of the area.

This photo taken in late spring shows the broad Pasvik River and open territory through which a Russian defector allegedy ran in the middle of a cold winter night on January 13. PHOTO: NewsinEnglish.no/Morten Møst

“I think someone must have been looking the other way in order for that to be possible,” Rolf Randa, a former border patrol office in Sør-Varanger, the region of Northern Norway that extends ot the border, told Aftenposten. Several others in the area also told the paper that they were skeptical because the area is under strict surveillance at all times, year ’round. When the ice melts, the river is also patrolled by boat.

Randa noted that documentation is needed in order to even be allowed to enter the border area on the Russia side. There also are many fences with control posts to go through before arriving at the border, the first one fully 40 kilometers away. The last fence is said to be three meters high and covered with barbed wire on both sides, with sandtraps below to help track anyone getting over it. A signal system mounted on the fence also sets off alarms if anyone comes in contact with it.

It’s extremely difficult to cross the border illegally,” agreed Tom Røseth, an intelligence expert and instructor at Norway’s militarty college. He told Aftenposten that Medvedev “must have had help on the Russian side, which he says himself. That could have given him the necessary lead time he needed to cross.”

Aftenposten also notes how all the information made public so far about Medvedev has also come from Gulaga.net’s leader Osechkin, who’s been a target of criticism himself from other human rights activists. They include Olga Romanova, a prize-winning journalist who also questions whether Medvedev was recruited by the Wagner group while in prison and whether he actually fought in the war. Romanova also questions whether Medvedev was the commander of a Wagner troop, as he claims he was, and why he would discard his passport and his military tag.

Thousands of Russians have fled their homeland since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly a year ago. Medvedev remains the first Russian who has fled to the West after allegedly serving in the Wagner group, which has been described by US officials as a criminal organization.

“When someone comes over the border the way he did, you always need to be skeptical,” Røseth of the military college told Aftenposten, “especially when there’s a lack of clarity around his story. You have to handle defectors with skepticism, in an effort to reveal whether they’re double agents or part of a diversion strategy. He’ll probably try to be as important as possible in order to be able to stay here for as long as possible.”

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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