Weaponisation of Refugees in Putin’s Long-Standing Hybrid War Against the West

Dr. Taras Kuzio

The Russian state is using refugees as a form of hybrid warfare against the West, according to a new report published by the Henry Jackson Society.

According to the paper, the artificial build-up of migrants at the Polish border is just the latest iteration in Russia’s aggression towards the UK and Western Europe. Whilst there is a very human desire to resolve this short-term crisis the long-term consequences will be proving to Russia that they can use migrants and refugees as a weapon of hybrid-warfare, the paper warns.

Researcher Taras Kuzio has looked at how this latest crisis is different to those in the Mediterranean and the Channel, and could have serious consequences if not handled appropriately. Russia, and its proxy-state of Belarus are seeking to stoke internal divisions across Europe and in the UK, and destabilise our democracies, by taking advantage of open attitudes to refugees and migrants. Russia and Belarus are also retaliating against the West’s sanctions and hosting of opposition leaders and free Belarussian media.

The paper finds:

  • At the height of the crisis there were 55 weekly flights from the Greater Middle East to Minsk, with most receiving their visa upon arrival.
  • The crisis could feed into the Russian secret services’ three-decade tradition of training extremist, separatist and proxy paramilitaries in the former USSR. Polish security forces have previously caught Belarusian “little green men” – soldiers operating without insignia on their uniforms in the style of the GRU (Russian military intelligence) spetsnaz (special forces) – undertaking surveillance and collecting intelligence on Polish territory.
  • Russia is seeking to distract the West from the build-up of forces on the Ukrainian border. Almost all of the necessary elements for a Russian invasion are in place. regional instability would make this invasion more likely.

To prevent refugees and migrants being used as a weapon in the future the author recommends:

  • The West needs to differentiate this artificial crisis from the Mediterranean migrant crises of previous years. It must not negotiate directly with Lukashenka as this gives him legitimacy and enables Russia to step in to ‘mediate’ talks. Nor should Belarus be paid to host migrants as Turkey was.
  • Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are on the eastern border of both the EU and NATO. All three countries are under de facto attach from Russia, it is now of strategic interest that Poland’s eastern border especially is secured. The UK has offered army engineers to assist at the border, and the UK should plan to send further support when necessary.
  • The US and its European allies should designate unelected President Alexander Lukashenka as a “terrorist” because of his mass repressive against citizens protesting against election fraud, air piracy with the Ryanair jet, and undertaking massive human trafficking through a weaponisation of migrants.
  • Consultations under article 4 of the Treaty should take place now, and NATO should dispatch special forces, paramilitary forces akin to Italy’s Carabinieri and Spain’s Guardia Civil (Civil Guard), and engineering units to the Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian borders with Belarus to assist with their security, and to counter attempts at infiltration.
  • Under the NATO Charter on a Distinctive Partnership discussions should be held with Ukraine on security threats arising from the threat posed by Russian aggression. Doing so will show that Ukraine is not forgotten.
  • The UK should be aware that its own attractiveness as a destination for migrants has enabled this weaponization to be as effective as it has been. To reduce its draw on migrants the UK needs to enforce harsher penalties against people smuggling, illegal workers and return economic migrants to their country of origin.



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