The flight of the Wagner fighter to Norway creates a problem for its owner

Sipping a $12 beer in one of the world’s wealthiest capitals, Andrei Medvedev pondered the question that had hung over him since he left the battlefields of Ukraine: Is he a hero or a war criminal?

He claims to have defected from the infamous Russian Wagner mercenary unit during the war. monumental battle to the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, and later escaped from his native Russia by running across a frozen Arctic river. Now in Norway, Mr. Medvedev, 26, is seeking asylum while providing Norwegian authorities with information about Wagner.

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. Mister. Medvedev spoke about the killing of Ukrainians in battle and how he witnessed the summary executions of comrades accused of cowardice. He claims that he did not participate in or witness war crimes such as the killing of prisoners of war and civilians.

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

His unlikely journey has made Mr. Medvedev one of the few well-known Russian combatants seeking protection in Europe after participating in an invasion. His asylum request now forces Norway to tackle a case that pits the country’s humanitarian spirit against an increasingly assertive national security policy and solidarity with Ukraine.

According to his lawyer, the real threat of retaliation facing Mr. Medvedev if he is sent home makes him eligible for asylum. And some Norwegian politicians have said that encouraging soldiers like Mr. Medvedev’s desertion would have weakened the Russian army and ended the war.

But as Norway evaluates his statement, it faces pressure from activists in Ukraine and Western Europe who are talking about granting asylum in Europe to Russian fighters, especially mercenaries like Mr Wilson. Medvedev cannot hold the Russians accountable for the invasion. And the former fighter may have complicated his request with bar fights and detentions in Norway, as well as briefly posting a YouTube video hinting that he wants to return to Russia.

More broadly, Mr. Medvedev’s case highlights a political dilemma that European governments have largely avoided publicly addressing: how should the region treat Russian deserters and hundreds of thousands of combatants in the Russian army? war in Ukraine in general?

“This is at the core of who we are in Europe,” said Cecilie Hellestveit, an expert on the law of armed conflict associated with the Norwegian human rights watchdog and a former member of the country’s asylum appeals board. “It forces us to rethink our approach to human rights, which we have not been willing to do until now.”

The European Union and acceding states such as Norway have had to balance humanitarian needs with war crimes liability before, most recently when considering immigration applications from people who fought in the civil war in the Balkans and Syria.

But the scale of the war in Ukraine, its proximity to the European Union and the involvement of two conventionally armed armies means that the Russian invasion poses a much bigger problem for the region’s asylum system, she said. Hellestveit said.

Four months after Mr. Medvedev asked for asylum, his application is still pending. Norway’s immigration agency said all asylum cases filed by Russians who fled military service have been put on hold while they review the country’s human rights record. The agency said it could not comment on individual applications for privacy reasons.

Some humanitarian law experts in Norway say Mr Medvedev’s pending request reflects the government’s unwillingness to draw further attention to a case that could divide the public, outrun other European states’ politics and strain relations with Kiev. Norway has been an ardent supporter of the Ukrainian cause, providing $7.5 billion in economic and military aid and hosting some 40,000 Ukrainian refugees.

“There are a lot of conflicting rights, a lot of conflicting obligations and a lot of conflicting policies in this case,” said Paal Nesse, head of the Norwegian Asylum Seekers Organization, a non-profit organization that provides legal assistance to applicants.

Norway and EU countries have struggled to formulate a common approach to asylum applications made by Russians who fled the country to avoid military servicea much larger group of applicants than men who participated in hostilities, such as Mr. Medvedev.

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

Pavel Filatiev, former Russian paratrooper, asked for asylum in France after the fighting in Ukraine, said he was waiting for a decision eight months after he applied. The third well-known Russian deserter in Europe, former army mechanic Nikita Chibrinhas been pending an asylum application in Spain since November.

Legal uncertainty, financial problems and social exclusion are hard to bear, he said. Filatiev said in a telephone interview, but added that he considers himself lucky and grateful to his French hosts.

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

Mister. Medvedev has a nasty history of antisocial behavior. He has already been detained twice in Norway for fighting in bars and once in Sweden for illegal entry into the country. (He was returned to Norway.) According to court records, he spent four years in prison in Russia for robbery and brawling.

People who know him say these actions may have been the result of a lifetime of trauma: in an abusive family home, in a Siberian orphanage and Russian prisons, and on Ukrainian battlefields.

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

Such skirmishes have highlighted tensions between Russian defectors and Ukrainian refugees across Europe. Natalia Luciy, head of the Ukrainian Association in Norway, said the lack of international cooperation has prevented Norway and other countries from thoroughly investigating war crimes committed in Ukraine.

“Thus, Medvedev and his associates 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 military service contains contradictory or unverifiable statements. However, some basic facts of his life have been confirmed by public records and interviews with acquaintances.

The weight of this evidence shows that Mr. Medvedev entered the service with Wagner in July 2022, two days after serving his last prison term.

The founder of the Wagner company, Yevgeny Prigozhin, called Mr. Medvedev in April – “a donkey who spent two days in Wagner, who cannot identify anyone.” After escaping to Norway, G. Prigozhin called him dangerous. He did not publicly threaten G. Medvedev.

In an interview in Oslo, G. Medvedev described his new living conditions, which are mainly provided by the Norwegian state. They include home visits, home visits from a Norwegian teacher, an integration assistant, ski and mountain bike trips, and “Taco Saturdays” with bodyguards, he said.

He also claims to be the subject of a bidding war between filmmakers, a claim that cannot be verified.

But a few days after the interview, Mr. Medvedev said he contacted the Russian embassy to get help returning home.

“I hope that I can find peace and quiet here, that I can leave behind politics, war, the army,” he said in video posted on YouTube. “It wasn’t supposed to be.”

He later deleted the video and refused to speak again when contacted by phone.

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

According to Norwegian law, refusing to take part in an illegal war can give you the right to asylum. However, this right does not extend to war criminals, and local prosecutors can bring charges against individuals they believe have committed war crimes elsewhere.

This was announced by the representative of the Norwegian criminal police. Medvedev was a witness, not a suspect, in his investigation into war crimes in Ukraine, and that to date officers have “found no basis for charges.”

Mister. Medvedev said his cooperation helped investigators find Wagner facilities in Ukraine and Russia and map the group’s structure.

The case is also being monitored by Ukrainian officials who are conducting their own investigation into Mr. K. Medvedev. Shortly after his arrival in Norway, the Ambassador of Ukraine to Oslo told local media that her government could request his extradition.

Such a request would put Norway in yet another dilemma, forcing it to choose between showing support for an ally and upholding the basic principle of its asylum law. This law states that asylum seekers cannot be sent to a country where they cannot be given a fair trial.

The Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine, in a written response to questions, said that it was checking all Russian military personnel arriving in foreign countries for possible involvement in war crimes, and requested legal assistance from Norway in the investigation of the case of Mr. K. Medvedev.

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

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

Constant Meeu provided a report from Paris, Alina Lobzina from London and Natalya Erma from Kyiv, Ukraine.