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A Russian dissident working to rescue invading soldiers from the frontlines, that they may then expose the war crimes committed by their peers while in Ukraine, has admitted he is embarking on a “suicide mission” after the Kremlin issued calls for his assassination. Vladimir Osechkin, 41, has helped dozens of Russian soldiers, as well as Wagner Group mercenary fighters, escape the frontlines to seek asylum in the West.
His exploits have divided opinions, with some praising his work to unveil the criminal behaviour within the Russian Armed Forces and undermine the propagandised reputation of militias operating in Ukraine, while others have accused him of acting as a de facto apologist for soldiers who are merely trying to escape the brutality of the war in the face of Ukrainian success.
Among those that Mr Osechkin has helped flee Ukraine is Konstantin Yefremov, a Russian lieutenant, believed to be the most senior member of the military to speak out against the invading nation.
Mr Osechkin also played an instrumental role in attempts by Andrei Medvedev, a former Wagner commander, to flee to Norway, where he is now seeking political asylum.
Yefremov, who is now safely in Mexico, where he is applying for political asylum in the United States, has spoken out about the brutal torture of Ukrainian prisoners of war by Russian troops, going into depth about the “crazy commander” who would shoot POWs in the knees and refuse them medical service.
Such stories could prove vital to charging Russian soldiers and their commanders with war crimes, and Yefremov has praised Mr Osechkin for getting him out of Ukraine.
He said: “If it wasn’t for Vladimir Osechkin, I wouldn’t have been able to get out of the country and tell the truth about what I saw in Ukraine.”
But Mr Osechkin, a father and a husband living in southern France, has assumed an enormous risk to his life to expose such behaviour within the Russian ranks in Ukraine. Speaking to The Times, he described surviving an assassination attempt at his family home last September.
He recounted diving to the floor with his wife and children when he saw a red sniper’s dot, having been tipped off that a Kremlin-linked killer had been sent to assassinate him.
Referring to the French and Norwegian police officers behind him, which are offering protection, he said: “I’m a target. Such security measures aren’t implemented for nothing.
“I might not have long left to live. And so I want to do everything I can right now. I’m not conserving my strength for the future. This is, essentially, a suicide mission.”
Speaking about what could happen if he returned to Russia, he added: “They wouldn’t even arrest me. They would just take me immediately to a garbage dump near Moscow and dissolve me in acid.”
Before the war in Ukraine, Mr Osechkin, started a website after being released from prison, having served a four year sentence for charges of fraud that he claimed had been trumped up by the police.
The outlet, called gulag.net, became well known for releasing leaked videos of horrific torture, including sexual abuse, in Russian prisons. He has been wanted by the Kremlin ever since.
Shifting his focus to exposing intra-Russian torture and abuse in Ukraine, however, has brought with it fresh issues, particularly around his work with ex-Wagner Group fighters, such as Medvedev.
Medvedev, 26, crossed into Norway last month after fighting with Wagner in Bakhmut, the eastern Ukrainian town that has seen some of the heaviest battles of the war, with the help of Mr Osechkin.
After Medvedev told Mr Osechkin that he had witnessed the executions of ten Wagner fighters who had deserted or refused orders, becoming the first mercenary to speak openly about the war, Mr Osechkin praised the former fighter of “destroying the myth” about the Wagner Group.
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He said: “It destroyed the myth about Wagner being this wonderful organisation that pays great salaries and that everyone is trying to get into.
“Within two to three days, all the prisoners knew about the video. They started to realise the truth. Unfortunately, propaganda has taught Russians to hate Ukrainians. But when people found out that Russians were killing Russians who had refused to fight in Ukraine, this had a big effect.”
But others have accused Medvedev of abusing the system, in turn suggesting Mr Osechkin’s efforts were in vain.
Rostislav Yevdyukhin, who represents a Ukrainian diaspora association in Norway, said: “I am shocked that [Medvedev] is allowed to walk freely on the streets of Oslo. We all know about the atrocities that Wagner has committed.
“I think he understands that in Norway he is a target for Russians who want to kill him and Ukrainians who also want to hurt him to retaliate. It’s not safe for him to be walking around and it’s not safe for people here, either. He is a threat to Norwegian national security. The Russian FSB [intelligence service] can use him as an asset.”
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