Russian ‘deserter’ who shot police found to be mercenary recruited from prison

Pavel Nikolin
Pavel Nikolin

A suspected Russian deserter who opened fire on police officers has been arrested and identified as a mercenary for the Wagner Group.

Pavel Nikolin, 38, was reportedly serving a sentence for theft at one of Russia’s tough penal colonies in the southwestern city of Ufa when he was recruited by the group and sent to the front line in Ukraine.

He is accused of deserting his post and firing at officers on Tuesday in the town of Novoshakhtinsk.

The incident occurred after he emerged from a forest and was stopped near a customs point in the border town with Ukraine.

He opened fire with either a machine gun or Kalashnikov assault rifle, injuring one officer.

Authorities quickly shut down roads going in and out of the city, schools and kindergartens, and ordered people to stay at home while they searched for him.

Police and army personnel hold up a long queue of cars on a major road
Police and army personnel hold up a long queue of cars on a major road

On Wednesday, local authorities said Mr Nikolin had been arrested near where the attack took place.

“The offender has been arrested. As a result of well-coordinated operational-search actions, he was found in an empty building near Novoshakhtinsk. Investigations are underway,” the Novaya Gazeta newspaper quoted Vasily Golubev, the regional governor, as saying.

In footage of his arrest posted by the Baza news channel, a gaunt man dressed in military fatigues with cuts and bruises to his face can be seen being escorted by officers in handcuffs.

“He ended up in the special operation zone after he was recruited into the Wagner PMC,” the Baza Telegram news channel said, referring to the war in Ukraine.

23,000 convicts sent to Ukraine

The Kremlin-linked group is suspected of recruiting as many as 23,000 convicts and sending them to fight in Ukraine to shore up Russia’s faltering invasion.

Mediazona, a Russian news website operating in exile, showed a sudden 6.5 per cent drop in the male population of Russian prisons in November compared with August, when Wagner started recruiting convicts.

The Kremlin has faced a public backlash over its drive to mobilise hundreds of thousands of new troops to Ukraine, sparking violent protests and a mass exodus of Russian men.

In a rare public apology in September, the Kremlin admitted that some men had been drafted in violation of Putin’s decree.

“Those cases are being rectified,” said Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman.