Top NATO commander Philip Breedlove recently accused Russia of using the migration crisis in Europe as a weapon. Russia Direct asked top experts about Breedlove’s remarks and their potential impact on the future of Russia-NATO relations.
Newly arrived Syrian and Iraqi refugees peer form behind the tinted window of a bus driving migrants to a shelter area at the Athens' port of Piraeus. Photo: AP
Last week, U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO Allied Command Operations, announced that Russia and the Syrian government are responsible for the refugee crisis in Europe. According to him, they are using it as a weapon to “break” the European Union. To follow his logic, Russian bombings in Syria exacerbates the refugee crisis: The more airstrikes Moscow conducts in Syria, the more refugees are going to Europe.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin points fingers to the U.S. and claims that the refugee crisis results from what Russia’s Foreign Ministry calls the West's "irresponsible" and "unreasonable" policy in the Middle East and its attempts to change political regimes in the region.
With no agreement on Russia’s role in aggravating or allaying the refugee crisis, Russia Direct interviewed experts to assess Breedlove’s statement and figure out if the Kremlin uses the crisis as a weapon to reach its political means.
Steven Pifer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center on the United States and Europe
Even if the exacerbation of the refugee crisis in Europe is not an explicit goal of Russian policy in Syria, the growing refugee numbers impose additional burdens on European governments, sow divisions among them, and undermine German Chancellor Angela Merkel's leadership. I suspect that the Kremlin very much welcomes those developments.
The more important part of Gen. Breedlove's Washington comments have focused on the need to bolster NATO's conventional deterrent and defense capabilities, in light of the more bellicose posture that Russia has assumed over the past several years.
The U.S. government has already announced a number of steps in that direction in its European Reassurance Initiative request for the next fiscal year.
Andrei Korobkov, professor of Political Science at Middle Tennessee State University
The current anti-Russian and anti-Putin rhetoric has reached levels not visible even at the peak of the Cold War. Never before was personal demonization of the Soviet/Russian leader so visible, with a number of major political figures, allowing themselves personal insults towards the Russian president. The situation in Syria and the refugee crisis in Europe serve as effective illustrations of this trend.
The majority of the refugees came to Europe last year from Syria – a sovereign country. Its legitimate government, with the support of Russia and Iran, is fighting various Sunni extremist groups, sponsored by the West, the ultra conservative Sunni regimes, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).
Among the other major suppliers of refugees to Europe, two – Afghanistan and Iraq – were directly destabilized by the U.S. invasions and failed attempts to impose new, alien political regimes. So, Europe should also blame itself and its major ally – the United States – for the current crisis. Russia should be the last country to blame in this situation.
Jack Goldstone, professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson Center
General Breedlove is speculating – but his observations do raise the question of why Russian bombers are using munitions that cause widespread damage (barrel bombs) rather than more precise munitions if Russia only wants to kill terrorists.
Certainly Breedlove's comments will make it more difficult for the U.S. and Russia to work together. Yet this is true on both sides – Russia's comments criticizing the U.S. role in Ukraine and attacking the actions of sovereign nations who choose to join NATO also make cooperation difficult.
Perhaps the clearest message from Breedlove's comments is that Russia and the U.S. have different views of what is going on the ground in Syria. If Russia would demonstrate that it also sees the vast number of civilians fleeing Syria as a humanitarian crisis, and take actions to help stop it, that would help dispel suspicions like those that Breedlove expressed.
Ivan Timofeev, program director at Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)
These statements are not well-grounded at all. Migration is a common challenge both for EU and Russia. Russia is interested in full-fledged cooperation with the EU on the problem.
Russia and the EU are interdependent in this regard. The migration crisis in Europe will inevitably harm Russia and Moscow understands it quite well.
These relations are already in a crisis. However the statement will not contribute to any solution, deepening the gap between us and raising security risks. It is strange to hear such assessments from a high-ranking military professional, who must be interested in solving the crisis, but not aggravating it.
Sergey Markedonov, associate professor at Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH)
Breedlove`s statements are really like a “conspiracy theory.” In fact, his accusations are simply illogical, because the conflict in Syria started in 2011 and Russia started taking part in it only in 2015. That is the first thing to know before accusing Russia of sponsoring a migration crisis or using it as a weapon.
What is more, if you investigate the statistics, it will become clear that migrants come to the EU not only from Syria, but also from Afghanistan and Somalia. However, there are no Russian troops in these countries. Soviet military forces left Afghanistan in 1988, but migrants from there still come to Europe. Does not this mean that Russia is not the main aggressor and sponsor of the EU`s crisis?
In my opinion, the statements of Mr. Breedlove will not change the relations between Russia and the EU dramatically. These relations definitely have systemic problems and it is not right to say that words of the one of the military leaders of NATO will affect them a lot.
Ruslan Kostyuk, professor at St. Petersburg State University
The top military brass frequently makes awkward and inadequate statements. Definitely, the growth of the number of immigrants in the EU results from the war in Syria, among other reasons. But the people are fleeing not only because of the actions of Syrian army.
Although the refugee crisis can make the EU vulnerable, today it is hardly likely to be a big threat to the integrity of Europe in general. If the top U.S. official makes such statements [that the EU is under threat of the migration crisis], it only reveals his assessment of the potential of his Atlantic allies.
It is no secret that the relations between Russia and NATO are now on a very low level. Given this fact, it is hardly likely that any statement can damage them a lot. But, anyway, such rhetoric indicates that their relations are reaching the lowest point.
James Carden, contributing editor to The Nation magazine
To a certain extent, Breedlove is right: Heavy aerial bombardment of civilian areas does produce refugees – that is a feature of all wars. What Breedlove quite intentionally overlooks is the very salient fact that the U.S. and its so-called Sunni "allies" in the region have also been pouring fuel on the fire of the Syrian civil war in their support for the mythical "moderate" rebels, and their involvement pre-dates the Russian air campaign by about three years.
So, there is plenty of blame to go around for the horrendous humanitarian crisis that has resulted. One further point, Breedlove, in claiming Russia is "weaponizing" migration is clearly reading off talking points provided to him by what I would call the "military-media-think tank complex" in Washington. It is now in vogue to claim that Russia is in the business of "weaponizing" information, "weaponizing" refugees, etc. Be forewarned: When you hear someone throwing the word "weaponization" about in relation to Russia, you can pretty certain that that person has virtually no idea what he or she is talking about.
I wouldn't expect there to be far-reaching implications. NATO-Russia cooperation is virtually non-existent at this point in time, and Breedlove is on record as saying, among other things, that he views Russia as an "existential" threat to the West and that he personally favors arming Kiev to fight what are incessantly referred to as "the Russian-backed" separatist forces in the Donbas. In other words, this is just more of the same from someone who has a vested interest in perpetuating a new Cold War and an era of division and mistrust on the continent.