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

He claims to have deserted from Russia’s notorious Wagner mercenary force during the monumental battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, and later to have escaped his native Russia by running across a frozen Arctic river. M. Medvedev (26), is currently in Norway seeking asylum and providing information to Norwegian authorities about Wagner.

Since his arrival in Norway in January, Medvedev has attended voluntarily about a dozen interviews by Norwegian police officers who are investigating war crimes committed in Ukraine. This includes Mr. Medvedev’s possible role. Mr. Medvedev describes killing Ukrainians and watching summary executions. He says he didn’t commit or witness any war crimes, such as the killing of civilians and prisoners of war.

“Yes, I have killed, I saw comrades die. It was war,” In an interview in a Norwegian bar, he stated this. “I have nothing to hide.”

Medvedev is now one of a few Russian combatants known to the public who have sought refuge in Europe for their safety after taking part in the invasion. His asylum request is now forcing Norway to decide a case that pits the country’s humanitarian ethos against an increasingly assertive national security policy and solidarity with Ukraine.

According to his lawyer, Mr. Medvedev’s credible threat of retribution if he is sent home qualifies for asylum. And some Norwegian politicians have said that encouraging soldiers like Mr. Medvedev to defect would weaken Russia’s army and hasten the end of the war.

Norway, as it evaluates the claim, is also under pressure from activists based in Ukraine and Western Europe who believe that giving safe-haven in Europe to Russians fighters, mercenaries, like Mr. Medvedev fails to hold Russians accountable. Former fighter Medvedev may have made his request more complicated with bar fights in Norway and detentions. He also posted a short video on YouTube saying he wanted to go back to Russia.

More broadly, Mr. Medvedev’s case puts a spotlight on a policy dilemma that European governments have largely avoided grappling with in public: How should the region treat Russian deserters, and the hundreds of thousands of combatants in Russia’s It is a good idea to use in Ukraine, in general?

“It goes to the core of who we are in Europe,” said Cecilie Hellestveit, an expert in armed conflict law affiliated with Norway’s human rights watchdog and a former member of the country’s asylum appeal board. “It forces us to re-evaluate our approach to human rights in a way that we have not been willing to do until now.”

The European Union has had to reconcile humanitarian needs and war crimes accountability in the past. Most recently, this was in processing immigration requests of people who participated in the civil wars that raged in Syria and the Balkans.

But the scale of the war in Ukraine, its proximity to the European Union, and the participation of two conventional armies means that the Russian invasion presents a much greater challenge to the region’s asylum system, Ms. Hellestveit said.

His asylum claim is still pending four months after he requested it. Norway’s immigration agency said all asylum cases filed by Russians who fled to evade military service were on hold while they analyze the human rights conditions in the country. The agency stated that it was unable to comment on specific applications due to privacy concerns.

Some humanitarian law experts in Norway say Mr. Medvedev’s unresolved request reflects the government’s reluctance to bring further attention to a case that could divide the public, get ahead of the policies of other European states and strain relations with Kyiv. Norway has always been a strong supporter of Ukrainians, providing $7.5 billion of economic and militaristic aid and taking in about 40,000 Ukrainian refugees.

“This case has a lot of conflicting rights, a lot of conflicting obligations and a lot of conflicting politics,” Paal Ness, head of Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers – a non-profit that offers legal aid to asylum seekers – said.

Norway and E.U. The E.U. and Norway have been struggling to find a common solution for asylum applications submitted by Russians fleeing the country in order to avoid military service. This group is much larger than those men who fought like Mr. Medvedev.

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

Pavel Filatiev is a former Russian paratrooper, who has requested asylum in France. He fought in Ukraine and said that he was still waiting for the decision. Third publicly known Russian deserter, in Europe Former army mechanic Nikita Chbrin, has a pending claim for asylum in Spain since November.

In a telephone interview, Filatiev admitted that the legal uncertainty, financial difficulties and social isolation were difficult to deal with. However, he said that he was fortunate and grateful to his French host.

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

Mr. Medvedev’s has a troubled history of antisocial behavior. He was already detained twice by Norway for getting into fights at bars and once by Sweden for entering the country without permission. (He was returned back to Norway. According to court records, he was jailed in Russia for four years, allegedly for robbery, and fighting.

Many people who know him say that these actions may be the result of a life of trauma: in violent homes, Siberian orphanages, Russian jails, as well as on Ukrainian battlefields.

Medvedev also said that he has clashed with Ukrainians in Oslo, the most recent time being when he visited a local Soviet memorial on Victory Day.

The tensions between Russian refugees and Russian defectors in Europe have been highlighted by such encounters. Natalia Lutsyk is the head of the Ukrainian Association of Norway. She said that the lack of cooperation between nations prevented Norway from investigating the war crimes committed by Ukraine.

“Thus, Medvedev and his companions remain unpunished,” She added.

The New York Times interviewed Mr. Medvedev for several weeks and researched his personal history after he fled the front line in November to go into hiding in Russia. His claims about his military service are contradictory or uncorroborated. Public records and interviews conducted with his acquaintances have corroborated some basic facts about his life.

This evidence is strong enough to show that Mr. Medvedev joined Wagner two days after completing his last prison sentence in July 2022.

Wagner’s founder, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, in April called Mr. Medvedev a “jackass who spent two days in Wagner, who can’t identify anyone.” Prigozhin branded him dangerous after he fled to Norway. He has never publicly threatened Mr. Medvedev.

In an Oslo interview, Mr. Medvedev described the new living conditions he has been provided with, largely by the Norwegian government. He said that they included a house, visits from a Norwegian teacher at home, an integration assistant and ski and mountain biking trips. “Taco Saturdays” With a personal security team.

He also claimed to be the subject of an auction war between filmmakers. However, this assertion was not verified.

After the interview, Medvedev said he had spoken to the Russian Embassy in order to receive assistance with his return home.

“I hope that I could find peace and calm here, that I could leave behind the politics, the war, the army,” He said in A video posted on YouTube. “It was not to be.”

He deleted the videos later and refused to respond when contacted on phone.

Brynjulf Risnes is his lawyer. He said that the public comments of Mr. Medvedev should not have any impact on an asylum request, as it’s decided on humanitarian reasons. But Mr. Medvedev’s violent past and controversial behavior, which has turned him into a minor local celebrity, have confused and alienated many Norwegians, sapping sympathy for Russian defectors.

According to Norwegian law, refusing a fight in a war that is illegal may give you a right of asylum. This right does not extend to war criminals. Local prosecutors may charge those they believe committed war crimes in another country.

A Norwegian criminal police spokesperson said that Mr. Medvedev is a witness and not a suspect in their investigation into war crimes in Ukraine. “have not found grounds for charges.”

Mr. Medvedev said his cooperation had helped investigators locate Wagner facilities in Ukraine and Russia and map the group’s structure.

Ukrainian officials are also conducting their own investigation into Mr. Medvedev’s case. Shortly after his arrival in Norway, Ukraine’s ambassador in Oslo Tell local media It is possible that the government of her country could ask for his extradition.

A similar request would force Norway to face a new dilemma. It would have to decide between showing support for a close ally or upholding its basic asylum law. The law stipulates that asylum seekers cannot be sent into a country in which they might not receive a fair trial.

The office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general said in a written response to questions that it checked all Russian servicemen who arrive in foreign countries for potential participation in war crimes, and that it had requested Norway’s legal assistance in investigating Mr. Medvedev.

Mr. Medvedev claimed that he refused to meet with Ukrainian investigators in Norway who had asked to do so.

“They are always after me,” He said. “I’m helping them to end this war.”

Constant Méheut Contributed reporting from Paris Alina Lobzina From London Natalia Yermak From Kyiv, Ukraine