As missiles continue to fly across the Ukrainian countryside, some 4 million people have now fled to bordering countries, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at the time of writing. These numbers are of course set to rise as the projections suggest that Ukraine and its people are in for a devastatingly protracted conflict.
The streams of people fleeing the crisis are placing pressure on the European Union's (EU) migration system in ways not seen since WWII, when international refugee protections were first created. What’s more, low numbers of Ukrainians are fully vaccinated and with local hospitals massively under strain, COVID cases have shot up, threatening its spread in the makeshift accommodation in neighbouring states.
Putin and his inner circle not only knew a humanitarian crisis would be born in Europe from an invasion of Ukraine but they manufactured it. Several days before troops crossed the border, Moscow fast-tracked the allocation of passports to some 720,000 residents of pro-Russian separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, marketed as a gesture of goodwill and fuel for Russia's nationalist propaganda engine.
Further, the trajectory of the Russian military is forcing the Ukrainian exodus westward, towards Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Moldova. As per his playbook, Putin is once again hoping to use fleeing civilians as weapons to target the European Union (EU), North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and the West writ-large.
A long-time weapon of despots
The weaponisation of displaced persons has a history in the autocratic modus operandi. In her 2010 book, Professor Kelly Greenhill argues that nonliberal democracies have often targeted liberal democracies by exploiting what she terms “coercive engineered migration”. She reminds us that it worked for Castro when he forced waves of 100,000 Cuban migrants to Florida in the 1960s and nearly for Gaddafi, who threatened that Europe “would turn black” unless it sent money to Libyan coffers.
As Greenhill wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, using migrants for geopolitical coercion has worked remarkably well in the past. Europe especially has tried to externalise its migration problems leaving it particularly open to blackmail. This coalesced in the 2016 deal with Turkey, where in exchange for hosting mostly Syrians and Afghanis escaping war, allowing Turkish President Erdogan to successful barter for six billion euros and visa-free travel for Turks. This deal has weighed over Europe’s head ever since, with Erdogan in 2020 threatening to "open the gates" to Europe to extract more EU funds.
And just last year, Belarusian President Lukashenko, Putin’s puppet, was accused of engineering a migrant crisis with the aim of destabilising the EU and removing economic sanctions. Through flight deals from the Middle East, the Belarusian regime coaxed individuals to Belarus and channelled them through sub-zero temperatures to the border with NATO member Lithuania and that of Poland, in what EU commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, labelled "using human beings in an act of aggression”.
Poland’s response was to rapidly erect barbed-wire fences and disallow media and civil society organisations any access to the area, indicative of the tension that migration causes within the EU. The malfunctioning migration system is a thorn in the European paw, with deep disagreements on how to enact a consistent policy of burden-sharing within the bloc.
Russia has consistently attempted to exploit this disunion. In his two-plus decades in power, Russia has colluded with dictators like Lukashenko and Syria’s al-Assad through involvement in the Syrian civil war to weaponise desperate human beings in an attempt to sow chaos in Europe. Ukraine’s migrant crisis is typical of his brand of state coercion, what NATO refers to as “hybrid warfare”.
In this context, uncontrolled waves of displaced people across the EU are just as much a weapon at Putin’s disposal as disinformation, a convoy of tanks, cyber-attacks, or nuclear warheads.
A reinvigorated migration agenda
Previous migration crises have hardened Europe’s migration policies, instilled a culture of deadly pushbacks along its land and maritime borders and seen a rise of far-right and populist politicians. However, Putin’s latest, and largest, attempt at using migrants to destabilise the West may do just the opposite.
The EU has rushed through over €500 million in emergency aid and granted 3-year protection visas to Ukrainian residents through a Temporary Protection Directive. Fellow Slavic state Poland has changed its tune from the events at its border with Belarus, accepting over 2.3 million people since the conflict began, accompanied by videos of Polish volunteers welcoming Ukrainians with toys, food, and blankets. Even the once walled-off pro-Putin Hungary has reversed its stance.
This migration crisis was supposed to tear Europe down the middle. Instead, the outpouring of support that Europe’s leaders and people have shown to Ukraine is breathing new life into the sense of European solidarity. It may act as an inflection point in collective migration policy and jolt governments, like Poland's, into longer-term solutions to humanitarian overflows.
If this collective response to Ukraine can maintain its momentum, the hope is that it can extend to the other non-white and non-Christian people seeking refuge, not least the hundreds of thousands of Afghans left in limbo since the Taliban regained power.
While this war in Ukraine may prove bloody and drawn out, these are signs that Putin’s longtime weapon has backfired.
Dominic is a student of International Relations and holds an interest in the convergence of geopolitics and migration. In the past, he has worked as a teacher and with people seeking asylum in the EU.