While Bashar al-Assad wants to drain Syria of civilian opposition, Vladimir Putin seeks to flood Europe with unwelcome refugees. With Russian planes pounding civilian targets in Syria, it clearly fits into Moscow’s strategy not only to eliminate the armed resistance to Assad and preserve an ally in power but also to trigger a new wave of refugees into Europe.
Senator John McCain hit the nail on the head in a speech at the annual security conference in Munich when he declared that Moscow ‘s strategy was “to exacerbate the migrant crisis and use it as a weapon to divide the transatlantic alliance and undermine the European project.”
President Vladimir Putin has long calculated that a divided and disrupted EU can weaken consensus on prolonging financial sanctions against Moscow for its continuing attack on Ukraine. It also boosts nationalist fervor throughout Europe, unsettles certain unfriendly politicians, and provides opportunities for the Kremlin’s political inroads.
A special target of Putin’s attention is Germany, where without Chancellor Angela Merkel the Russia sanctions would already have been lifted. Despite pressure from coalition partners, business lobbies, and several EU capitals, Merkel has stood firm on sanctions. However, the Chancellor has faced mounting criticism within the ruling coalition for her “open-door” migrant policy, which allowed over one million asylum seekers to enter Germany in 2015.
Germany’s Economics Minister Gerd Muller has stated that an estimated 8-10 million refugees could try to enter Europe over the coming years. A new wave of refugees this year would seriously weaken Merkel both domestically and internationally. Opinion polls indicate that about 40% of German voters already want her to resign over her asylum policy.
A lame Merkel will be more easily undermined by her Social Democratic partners who favor lifting sanctions and returning to business as usual with Russia. This was evident in recent visits to Moscow by Sigmar Gabriel, German vice chancellor and Social Democrat leader, and by Horst Seehofer, leader of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Their stance is supported by Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
Refugees could be the key to Merkel’s survival. Brussels is pursuing an arrangement with Turkey to reduce the flow of refugees crossing to Greece. If this fails, Berlin plans to close its frontiers to passport-free travel in March, a move that will precipitate a chain reaction of border controls through Central Europe and into the Balkans. But there is great uncertainty regarding the effectiveness of such a policy.
A new influx of refugees will deepen splits between EU capitals and undermine the Schengen system of free movement. Among the most outspoken leaders is Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico, who claims that it was impossible to integrate migrants from the Middle East in European states, even though few if any refugees intend to settle in Slovakia. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has called for a complete halt to all migration into Europe and the establishment of a new “European defense line” on Greece’s northern borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria.
Moscow benefits from this continental emergency in several ways. It poses as the defender of state sovereignty against EU uniformity, as a bulwark of patriotism and traditionalism against liberal multiculturalism, and as a partner for the West in combating international terrorism. All three propaganda devices are crafted to eliminate international sanctions and restore Russia’s diplomatic credibility.
Putin’s strategy has four core objectives. First, by helping to undermine EU unity and reverse prospects for deeper integration, the Kremlin calculates that it will develop beneficial partnerships with several states that do not feel threatened by Russia’s neo-imperial project. This will help restore economic and business contacts and favor new energy contracts.
Second, Russia’s revived prestige will serve to isolate countries such as Poland, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from other EU members. These frontline states are calling for a more assertive Union stance toward Moscow in response to the forceful partition of Ukraine and Georgia and as protection against persistent threats to their own sovereignty.
Third, a disunited Europe gives Russia a freer hand in dealing with its numerous neighbors without Western interference. For instance, Moscow calculates that the Minsk agreements over Ukraine will be diluted or neglected, that its proxy control over the Donbas will be accepted, and that Kyiv will make little progress in its EU aspirations. Moreover, the Kremlin is designing scenarios whereby any future military moves in the South Caucasus against Georgia or Azerbaijan will be perceived as anti-terrorist operations rather than as empire building.
And fourth, European disunity will help justify Russia’s accelerating militarization and power projection in the Middle East, the Black Sea, and the eastern Mediterranean. Moscow poses as an indispensable partner against international jihadism and will claim that unlike the U.S. and the EU it possesses both the capabilities and the political will to destroy threats to European security. Unfortunately, despite all evidence to the contrary, some EU governments and business interests remain prone to such Kremlin deceptions.
Author: Janusz Bugajski