‘Russia behind illegal immigration surge’, it’s hybrid warfare - Lt Col Stuart Crawford

Fostering and enabling mass migration to hit the infrastructure of the UK and other EU nations is a part of Russian hybrid warfare, writes Lt Col Stuart Crawford.

From Russia with love? Putin agents facilitate illegal immigration

From Russia with love? Putin agents facilitate illegal immigration (Image: Getty)
If one issue has dominated British politics over the past year it must surely be illegal immigration. Hardly a day goes past without another report of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats, oftentimes having to be rescued as they get into difficulty.

Most of these alleged asylum seekers are in reality economic migrants, driven to make their way here because of our better employment prospects and generous benefits regime. Our Government has proved to be singularly inept at confronting the problem whilst criminal gangs make large profits from facilitating the crossings.

Many of us are now wondering whether there is more behind this than meets the eye.

Migration as one of the key threats to political stability has been a topic taught at military staff colleges around the world for decades. It was covered on both of the staff courses I attended while still in uniform, at the British Army Staff College at Camberley in 1986 and at the US Army Command and General Staff Course at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1993.

In more recent times, there have been a number of occasions when migration may have been weaponised by those who wish us ill.

For example, way back in late 2015/early 2016 a wave of migrants crossing from Russia into Finland and Norway fuelled an inkling of a deliberate strategy. Many felt at the time that the refugee crisis may have weighed heavily on public opinion in the UK in the run-up to the Brexit referendum.

The catalyst appeared to be the fighting in Syria which had been raging since 2011. US General Philip Breedlove, then Head of NATO forces in Europe, accused Russia of working actively to exacerbate the refugee flows in an attempt to destabilise and destroy the EU. In a testimony in front of the House Armed Services Committee, he said: “Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponising migration from Syria in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.”

Fast forward to the beginning of this year, and the Italian government said in March that the Russian mercenary group Wagner was behind a surge in migrant boats trying to cross the central Mediterranean. They saw it as part of Moscow's strategy to retaliate against countries supporting Ukraine.

Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto said in a statement: "I think it is now safe to say that the exponential increase in the migratory phenomenon departing from African shores is also, to a not insignificant extent, part of a clear strategy of hybrid warfare that the Wagner division is implementing, using its considerable weight in some African countries."

Coming right up to date, Finland has just been forced to close four of its eight border crossings with Russia as the latter is accused of “sending” migrants into Finnish territory. It had concluded that Moscow was deliberately and knowingly encouraging undocumented asylum seekers to cross the frontier and thereby threaten the new NATO member’s security.

Until recently Russia had blocked such undocumented individuals from crossing into Finland, but in recent weeks the numbers attempting to cross has risen alarmingly. Now according to the Finnish authorities more attempts have been made this month than in all the rest of 2023 combined.

Noting Finland’s action to mitigate the flow, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted: “Russia’s instrumentalisation of migrants is shameful. I fully support the measures taken by Finland.”

Here in the UK we also have our migrant problem of course. As of November 13, 27,284 people had crossed the English Channel in 2023.

In 2022, 45,755 migrants made the crossing, the highest number since figures began to be collected in 2018. They present a huge burden for UK Border Control and our social services, and likewise a big problem for the Government, especially now that the plan to export them again for processing in Rwanda has been stymied by the courts.

And, just when you might have thought matters couldn’t really get much worse, allegations have been made of Iranian and jihadist terrorist cells coming to Britain hidden within the waves of immigrants. This, if true, is very definitely not good news. Who knows what future outrage we may have unwittingly imported to our shores?

Could Russia be sponsoring such illegal movements of migrants across Europe? It would fall very much into the murky grey zone of hybrid and operations-short-of-war zone that the Kremlin and its acolytes are fond of frequenting. It is also eminently deniable and untraceable, which would suit their purposes just fine too.

Anything that weakens the west is good news for Putin and Moscow. We need to up our game here and be on our guard.


Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk

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