Saturday, August 5, 2017

Russia and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Twice in the past few weeks, I’ve read commentary implying that Vladimir Putin orchestrated the Syrian refugee crisis as a means of destroying western Europe.

The 1st instance was in On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder: 

“In early 2016, Russia manufactured a moment of fake terror in Germany.  While bombing Syrian civilians and thus driving Muslim refugees to Europe, Russia exploited a family drama to instruct Germans that Muslims were rapists of children.  The aim, again, seems to have been to destabilize a democratic system and promote the parties of the extreme right.” (p 108)

And the 2nd was in the essay The Seven Trends behind the Global Rise of Populism by Iyad El-Baghdadi:

 “Opportunistic players such as Russia found the perfect conflict to exploit to destroy the “liberal world order” – cynically and skillfully using it to erode international norms in the name of “fighting terrorism”.  Putin couldn’t throw missiles at Europe – so he threw waves of Syrian refugees at them.” (7. The unravelling of the Middle-East)

The 1st instance caught my attention, but it was more tangential than direct.  Though it is alluded to, “orchestrated” might be too strong a word.  I moved on.  The 2nd instance, however, forced me to sit up and really take notice.  Can’t ignore it twice.

Orchestrating a refugee crisis.  That’s a strong claim that requires evidence.  Sifting through that evidence requires time and attention, a refusal to be drawn into the unending cycle of “breaking news”, a desire to hear competing points of view, and a willingness to go beyond quick “gotcha” talking points.

I’m not talking Think Tank level analysis here, but is it possible for a novice such as myself to separate fact and fiction?  Could some basic reading and thinking bring even a modest amount of clarity?  Or are there just too many opinions from too many experts?  Too many “alternative facts”?  Too little time.

Let me tell you, after going through this exercise I have great respect for the press.  It is not easy to sift through mountains of facts and to make sense of ambiguity and contradiction in an age when millions of people can fact check your work instantly.  On and off, it took me weeks to write all of this....and it's likely that nobody will ever read it.  Imagine doing this on a daily deadline in front of the critical eye of millions! Particularly with the rapid pace at which the news cycle moves, the whole thing is exhausting.


Given Putin’s support of the Assad regime, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Western voices to “blame Putin” for the Syrian refugee crisis.

“Blame Putin” could be understood only in the most general sense, as in “Putin shares the blame”.  Inflammatory perhaps, but nothing overly shocking.

The two citations above, however, imply something different than mere guilt by association.  Something immensely more malevolent.  They imply, more or less 1)the intentional creation of a refugee crisis that was 2) orchestrated under the guise of or in conjunction with fighting ISIS and was 3) intended to weaken or destroy western democracy in Europe and throughout the world.

Perhaps I’m naïve, but I found this to be a stunning claim.  A refugee crisis as the unwelcome collateral damage of geopolitical conflict is one thing, unspeakably tragic as it is.  But the creation of a refugee crisis as the means of fighting a geopolitical war?  It’s so dark and twisted, so inhumane, that it almost defies belief.

Is there any evidence to support such a claim?  What would that evidence look like?  Is such a claim unambiguous and irrefutable, or is it only supported via a complex web of conspiracy theory laden circumstantial evidence?

The relevant factors as I saw them:

(1)    Targeting of Civilians

It seems to me that any proof must go well beyond the well documented Russian support for the Assad regime. Proof of “weaponizing refugees” must first be proven by Russian actions towards civilian populations.  So that’s the first question.

Take this article in The Telegraph from March 2, 2016.

General Breedlove, Nato’s military commander in Europe at the time, said this back in 2016:

“Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponising migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.”

What evidence supports this assertion?

“Barrel bombs are designed to terrorize, get people out of their homes, get them on the road and make them someone else's problem. These indiscriminate weapons used by both Bashar al-Assad, and the non-precision use of weapons by the Russian forces, I can’t find any other reason for them other than to cause refugees to be on the move and make them someone else’s problem.”

So the evidence is the use of weapons in an indiscriminate way, a way that is best explained as an attempt to create migration.

Or take Senator John McCain’s comments per this article from The Independent:

“He [Mr. Putin] wants to exacerbate the refugee crisis and use it as a weapon to divide the transatlantic alliance and undermine the European project.”

As above, the evidence lies with a Russian air campaign that target civilians:

-The intensified air campaign follows accusations from Senator John McCain, chairman of the US Senate armed services committee, that Russian President Vladimir Putin was intentionally stoking the refugee crisis in order to undermine the European project.

Numerous examples could be given of different authorities making this same assertion using the same evidence.  Russia, of course, denies targeting civilian populations or stoking the refugee crisis in any way. Whatever air force they employ, as the story goes, is targeted solely at rebels hostile to the Assad regime.

Have civilian populations been intentionally targeted or not?  Are rebels hiding amongst these populations or not?

(2)    Failed Cease-Fire

There is also the matter of the failed Turkey and Russia brokered Aleppo cease fire in October of 2016.  The cease fire was designed to allow humanitarian aid in and to let civilians out. The rebels, however, never accepted the cease fire.  Fighting never really stopped, and air strikes recommenced on the 3rd day of the cease fire.  As far as it relates to the refugee crisis, Russia and the Syrian government said that the Rebels wouldn’t let civilians leave Aleppo.  The Rebels asserted that the civilians tried to leave, but shelling by government military forces caused their retreat back into rebel occupied territory.

What to make of this?

If Russia wanted to exacerbate the refugee crisis, why wouldn’t they let the civilians out of Aleppo?  Perhaps Russian and Syrian forces did shell the civilians because they feared that rebels were attempting to escape with the civilians.  Or perhaps the rebels truly wouldn’t let them leave…because they wanted civilians as human shields or for another reason.  A number of narratives can be strewn together that, absent the facts, can make sense of any position.  Bottom line, it’s complex.  The facts are hard to know.

(3)    Putin’s Criticism of Europe’s handling of the Migrant Crisis

Regardless of whether Putin intended the migrant crisis, has he weaponized it?  Has he used it to attack and subvert European democracy?

Take the following example of a case in Austria; the raping of a 10 year old Serbian boy at the hands of a 20 year old Iraqi migrant.  This is a horrible story.  The migrant claimed that the rape was an emergency because he hadn't had sex in 4 months.  He was ultimately set free because the courts couldn't prove that migrant realized that the boy was saying no.  The attacker remained in custody awaiting a second trial.  I don't know all the details.  Here, I want to try to focus exclusively on Putin’s decision to wade into European migrant policies on this particular point.

“In a European country, a child is raped by a migrant, and the courts release him.”

“It doesn’t fit into my head what on earth they’re thinking over there.”

“I can’t even explain the rationale – is it a sense of guilt before the migrants?  What’s going on?  It’s not clear.”

“A society that cannot defend its children has no future.”

This same article included some comments by Konstanti Romodanovsky, head of Russia’s Federal Migration Service.

“The European Commission left it up to individual nations to decide how they want to treat asylum seekers – despite the fact that polices and capabilities of member states are very different.”

The common thread?  Using these sort of incidents as a means to argue that European unity creates unsolvable problems of sovereignty and thus puts individual nations at risk.  He argues that unity is weakness.  What is “strength” in these contexts?  Are “alliances” on paper only, but when shit really hits the fan it’s dog eat dog, the strong against the weak?  “Why the façade!?”…argues Putin.  “Let me point out the inherent problems of your “generosity” towards immigrants….a generosity that is fake and nobody really wants, mind you,” he argues.

This is the great challenge.

It’s curious though.  Putin places great emphasis on the nationalism and the sovereignty of the nation state. More specifically, he is concerned with his nation state.  So we should therefore assume that his comments here can be best understood against that backdrop – they are intended to benefit him.  That is, the sovereignty and safety of European nations is of little concern to him. These comments are to benefit Russia and, ultimately, himself.  The only questions are how and why?

(4)    The Effect of the Migrant Crisis

To put it mildly, the refugee crisis has "put strains on the regions resources and political unity."

If the intent was to destabilize Europe and it's unity, it appears to be working.  Working towards what end?

"Instead, it continues to view the United States and NATO as a threat to its own security. Since the beginning of 2014, President Putin has sought to undermine the rules-based system of European security and attempted to maximize his power on the world stage," he (General Breedlove) said.

Spotlighting the effects doesn't prove that the cause (the refugee crisis) was intended, but it's worth noticing that the obvious effects have not appeared to dissuade Putin (or Assad) from changing course.  Quite the opposite.  As outlined above, the crisis has provided the occasion for Putin to verbally attack Europe and to publicly question it's foundations.

This doesn't prove intent, but it's effects and the words and actions that followed suggest complicity.


If there is a “smoking gun” I didn’t find it.  There is no leaked Russian memo entitled “On the Creation of a Refugee Crisis Towards the Destruction of the European Project.”  Much of what I found is circumstantial and therefore requires a level of analysis that only those who make their living in these sorts of things are prepared to provide.

As I wrap this up, one more angle to consider.  One more quote from The Seven Trends behind the Global Rise of Populism:

“Perhaps more things are being put on bureaucratic auto-pilot not because of a plan but because of the lack of a plan. Maybe the “elites” are also winging it.”

The lack of a plan.  Maybe everyone is just winging it.

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