No, Russia isn’t weaponising refugees

The EU's problems have nothing to do with Putin.

Tara McCormack

Topics Politics

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Russia is ‘weaponising’ Syrian refugees. So says senior NATO commander Philip Breedlove. US senator John McCain said exactly the same thing at the Munich Security Conference a couple of weeks ago. But apart from headlines in the Financial Times (which is doing its best to fearmonger about a new Cold War), this claim from John ‘I’ve never seen a war I didn’t like’ McCain was not that widely reported. Hence why it’s been repeated by Breedlove in order to bolster NATO’s flagging purpose.

McCain and Breedlove claim that Russian (and Syrian government) bombing in Syria is part of a wider plot to destabilise Europe by sowing divisions in Europe and NATO. That such a preposterous claim could be so uncritically reported shows how accepting Western media are of anti-Russian propaganda.

Firstly, the refugees stranded in Europe consist of many nationalities, though Syrians are certainly in the majority. Kosovo has produced the third-highest number of refugees after Syria and Afghanistan, and given that it’s an EU protectorate and NATO bombed it to independence, who is doing the weaponising there? Secondly, Russia began bombing in September 2015, which was well after the refugee crisis had begun.

The argument is that US, French and Saudi bombs don’t hurt people or make them want to run away, but Russian and Syrian bombs are killers. This has been a standard trope rolled out without comment by much of the Western media, and reflects the disgraceful lack of honest and independent analysis of our own foreign policy.

How do we know that, prior to Russian bombing, Syrian people didn’t welcome coalition bombs destroying their houses, livelihoods and killing their children? The US-led coalition started bombing Syria in September 2014, at which time the already-existing refugee crisis was worsening. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 380,000 refugees had already arrived in Europe before Russian bombing started in September 2015. This was up from 216,000 for the whole of 2014.

There are a number of reasons behind the Syrian refugee crisis: the brutal Syrian war waged between Assad and anti-government forces (funded by the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States); the takeover by ISIS of parts of Syria; and bombs raining down on civilians from the US, France, the Gulf States, Russia and the Syrian government.

But perhaps the most important factor in the refugee crisis is the continued failure to formulate a collective European policy. This has been further exacerbated by various factors: Angela Merkel’s unilateral invitation to all Syrian refugees in the absence of any European agreement; individual European states’ refusal to resettle refugees; the EU’s reluctance to help Greece; expectations that Serbia, Macedonia and Greece would become vast holding camps; and migrants’ unwillingness to remain in Turkey because of its policies; the list goes on.

This anti-Russian sentiment is part of a big propaganda push from some Western political elites. As Scott Radnitz writes in Foreign Policy, there are wild accusations being made that Russia is funding everything from anti-fracking protests to Eurosceptic parties. Is Putin behind the British referendum on EU membership? Is Michael Gove receiving Moscow gold? Does the Kremlin have a hand in the rise of Poland’s Law and Justice Party (a serious headache for the EU), or Orban’s election in Hungary? While Russia is known to have loaned some money to Marine Le Pen, it can hardly be held solely responsible for Front National’s electoral success.

The crises blighting the EU are the products of internal political dynamics. A lack of democracy and a retreat from popular sovereignty have given rise to left- and right-wing populisms like the Front National, Podemos, the Five Star Movement and Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour Party. These outsider parties and individuals represent a feeling of disenfranchisement from mainstream political processes. As Radnitz points out, many of Europe’s right-wing populist parties are not ‘bought’ by Moscow, but share conservative traditional values which are seen to be under attack within the EU.

Everything that Russia does is interpreted as part of a grand plan for European destabilisation. Whether that be bilateral meetings between Putin and Orban, talking with German politicians about ending sanctions or German press articles that are critical of Merkel. Apparently, it’s all part of Russia’s brilliant new strategy of ‘hybrid war’ – the latest masterstroke from the Kremlin. Or, as we used to call it, meeting other governments in pursuit of your interests.

One of the interesting things going on in the US at the moment is a disagreement within the political and military establishment about America’s relationship with Russia. In the recent congressional hearing on security threats, secretary of state John Kerry stated that Russia has been acting as a partner to the US in major initiatives, such as the Syrian ceasefire, and that violent extremism presented a far bigger security threat to the US than Russia. This is in stark contrast to other sections of the elite who are pushing for Russia to be painted as Public Enemy No1.

Aside from producing some entertainingly ridiculous propaganda, demonising Russia works entirely against the EU’s interests. Discrediting right- and left-wing populist parties as being nothing but Kremlin puppets is a bad strategy. It allows the EU to dismiss these insurgent parties and continue fiddling while Rome burns. The EU’s problems are nothing to do with Russia. Only the EU and its member states can resolve them.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester. She is author of Critique, Security and Power: The Political Limits to Critical and Emancipatory Approaches to Security, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Politics


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