Top EU chief says Russian soldiers who desert war in Ukraine should be offered asylum

Soldiers walk amid destroyed Russian tanks in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv. Credit: AP

A senior European Union official has encouraged member countries to offer asylum to Russian soldiers willing to desert their country's offensive on Ukraine.

European Council president Charles Michel on Wednesday expressed his “outrage at crimes against humanity, against innocent civilians in Bucha and in many other cities.”

Mr Michel referred to the town outside of Kyiv where graphic evidence of civilian massacres and torture has emerged following the withdrawal of Russian forces. He called on Russian soldiers to disobey orders and said the bloc's member countries should think of ways to offer asylum to those who do.

“I have one message for the Russian soldiers on the battlefield," he said in a speech to the European Parliament.

"If you want no part in killing your Ukrainian brothers and sisters, if you don’t want to be a criminal, drop your weapons, stop fighting, leave the battlefield."

Endorsing an idea previously circulated by some EU lawmakers, Mr Michel, who represents the bloc’s governments, added that granting asylum to Russian deserters is “a valuable idea that should be pursued.”

A day after the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, proposed a ban on coal imports from Russia as part of a fifth round of sanctions, Mr Michel said the bloc should keep up the pressure on the Kremlin.

"I think that measures on oil, and even gas, will also be needed, sooner or later," he said.

The European Commission said the proposed ban on coal imports is worth four billion euros per year, and that the EU has already started working on additional sanctions, including on oil imports.

It would be the first time the 27-nation bloc has sanctioned the country’s lucrative energy industry over the war.

People walk by a destroyed apartment building in Borodyanka, outside of Kyiv Credit: Vadim Ghirda/AP

A consensus among the 27 EU countries on targeting gas, the fuel used to generate electricity and heat homes, would be difficult to secure amid opposition from gas-dependent members like Germany, the bloc's largest economy.

Demands for increased sanctions intensified this week after grim images of bodies strewn across gardens and streets, and horrific accounts of civilian killings, rape and mass destruction emerged, as Russian troops withdrew from the outskirts of Kyiv, in towns and cities such as Bucha.

The Kremlin claims the images, which have stirred global revulsion, are fake and suggested the scenes were staged by the Ukrainians.

Ukraine's prosecutor and other officials claim Russian troops may have committed worse atrocities in the town of Borodyanka but the extent of destruction is not yet clear.