28th Oct 2016

Russia 'weaponising' refugees against EU

  • Breedlove (c) with German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen (Photo: 1GNC Munster)

Russia is “weaponising migration” as part of a broader campaign to extend its influence in Europe, Nato’s military chief has said, echoing German and Turkish concern.

Philip Breedlove, a US general who commands Nato forces forces in Europe, spoke out on Tuesday (1 March) in a hearing with the Senate’s armed services committee in Washington.

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  • Build-up of refugees in Greece risks creating political and humanitarian crisis (Photo: Reuters)

“Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponising migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve,” he said, referring to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader and Russian ally.

Commenting on their “indiscriminate” fire on civilians in north Syria, he said: “I can't find any other reason for [that] other than to cause refugees to be on the move and make them someone else's problem.”

He issued the same warning to the House armed services committee last week.

The number of people fleeing to Europe in January and February, not long after Russia began air strikes, reached 131,000 - vastly higher than for the same period last year - EU figures say.

EU discord on how to handle the flow of people has prompted unilateral border restrictions and concern over a humanitarian crisis in Greece.

If the Russian air support lets Assad conquer the city of Aleppo in north Syria, Turkish diplomats say “hundreds of thousands” more will come, creating a “security nightmare”.

Norbert Roettgen, a German MP who chairs the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, recently told EUobserver that the refugee crisis was “a welcome side effect” for Russia.

“The addressee of this problem is the EU as a whole,” he said.

Selim Yenel, Turkey’s ambassador to the EU, told EUobserver: “If they [Aleppo refugees] go into the EU and let’s say that our ‘action plan’ [on migration] doesn’t work, then what happens in Europe - shutting down borders, chaos, [German leader Angela] Merkel weakening, losing elections, the right coming back to power?”.

Worse before better

Breedlove said on Tuesday the problems would “get worse before they get better” and that refugee numbers were likely to “continue to rise in 2016.”

“There is a concern that criminals, terrorists, foreign fighters and other extremist organisations will recruit from the primarily Muslim populations arriving in Europe, potentially increasing the threat of terrorist attacks,” he said.

“Continued weak economic growth [in Europe] … keeps unemployment rates high, specifically among young migrants susceptible to radicalisation,” he added.

“Local nationalists opposed to a large-scale influx of foreigners could [also] become increasingly violent,” he said.

Jack Reed, a Democratic party senator, told the US hearing: “The security implications of this [refugee] crisis are enormous, threatening to unravel a vision of Europe that has permeated the last two decades.”

’New normal’

Breedlove said Russia’s refugee tactics are part of a broader strategy to restore Soviet-era influence.

He said Russia was using the old and new conflicts in Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine to coerce its neighbours.

“We must not allow Russian actions in Syria to serve as a strategic distraction that leads the international community to give tacit acceptance to the situation in Ukraine as the ‘new normal’,” he said.

Noting that Nato powers and Russia had been on a path of reconciliation in the 1990s, he said: “Europe is not the same continent it was when I took command.”

’Barrage of lies'

Konstantin Dolgov, a senior Russian diplomat, said in a statement on Tuesday that the refugee crisis had “naturally resulted from the irresponsible and short-sighted interference of Western countries in the internal affairs of sovereign states in the [Middle East] region”.

Sergey Kopyrkin, Russia’s deputy EU ambassador, in separate remarks said there’s a “real risk” of an “enduring rift across the European continent”.

Breedlove in his Senate testimony also warned of the dangerous appeal of Russia’s “false narratives”.

“Russia overwhelms the information space with a barrage of lies that must be addressed by the United States more aggressively in both public and private sectors to effectively expose the false narratives,” he said.

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