Over the past few weeks, close to one thousand migrants from countries such as Syria, Somalia, Iraq, and others have converged on the Finnish and Estonian border. The surge in migrants is no coincidence, and the current crisis holds the hallmarks of the Russian security services and President Vladimir Putin’s hybrid warfare strategy.
The migrant influx in Eastern Europe is nothing new to the countries that border Russia. Still, the exploitation of vulnerable people who are trafficked is of grave concern that the world has glossed over for far too long. The case for giving the issue the attention it warrants is strong enough solely on moral grounds. But for those unmoved by such arguments, another rationale is at play: these cynical Russian actions are deliberately designed to advance Moscow’s objectives at the expense of the stability of not only neighboring states, but organizations like NATO and the European Union, as well.
The Kremlin is infamous for its hybrid warfare, waged against not only its Eastern European neighbors but also in the South Caucasus and farther afield in Africa. Taking frustrations out on countries who refuse to submit to Moscow’s imperialistic ambitions, Russia looks to sow instability, hoping that these countries’ governments will collapse and be replaced by a more pro-Russian one.
Earlier this year, Italy faced a surge in migrants—mainly from African countries with pro-Russian military juntas such as Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and the Central African Republic. The migrant wave also came from countries where the Wagner Group and GRU (Russian Foreign Intelligence Service) are active, such as Libya and Sudan. Italy’s government has directly blamed the Wagner Group for the surge of migrant boats seeking to cross the Mediterranean.
The surge in migrants this year coincides with Putin’s overall goals in the war against Ukraine, which he hopes to freeze on favorable terms as the Russian military has suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties and faces a logistical and labor shortage. The domino effect the Kremlin hopes to achieve is overwhelming the social welfare systems of European Union members. From there, Moscow hopes tensions between locals and migrants inflame and trigger the rise of far-right populist governments with a pro-Russian agenda, as seen with the current political climate in Hungary and Slovakia.
In light of this continued Russian aggression, Finland is enacting a complete border closure to prioritize security and protect against potential sabotage. The decision by Helsinki has been met with condemnation and protests in Russia, where the government lodged an official complaint with Finland’s ambassador. In fully closing the border, Finland joins other Eastern European countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, which face continuous hybrid and information warfare by Russia and have been subjected to a similar weaponization of migration that Finland is contending with now.
Poland and Lithuania experienced a surge in hybrid warfare when the Russian and Belarusian governments pushed migrants toward their borders in 2021. In retrospect, this could perhaps have been Putin’s way, with the help of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, of testing NATO’s resolve, even before the all-out invasion of Ukraine. In August 2021, top EU officials pledged more aid to Vilnius to combat the growing migrant crisis exacerbated by Minsk and Moscow.
Putin and Lukashenko’s roadmap for worsening the migrant problem for their nefarious purposes is straightforward. First, both Eastern European dictators promise unsuspecting migrants a new way of life by flying them from the Middle East and Africa to their own countries. Many of the migrants come to Russia to find work, but some are unsuccessful, and from this, traffickers and intelligence services take advantage of them. Next, the Russian and Belarusian intelligence services, along with human traffickers, strip the migrants of their passports and send them to the borders of neighboring states. Here, hybrid warfare takes full effect.
Aside from the destabilization of Eastern Europe along with the ultimate objective of ushering in pro-Russian governments, Putin potentially has other dubious purposes with the migrant push. Rumors are circulating over a potential new round of mobilization in Russia after elections scheduled for March, by which the Kremlin looks to take advantage of Western indecision and hesitancy over arming Ukraine in the long term.
The scale of Russian losses in the ongoing Avdiivka offensive highlight the challenges facing Moscow’s conventional war plan. The sheer number of casualties and equipment losses endured in order to gain incremental meters of land per day in Avdiivka significantly hamper Russia’s offensive capabilities. This also provides opportunities that Ukraine can take advantage of. While defending against the Russian offensive in Avdiivka, Ukrainian forces are also establishing various bridgeheads on the left bank of the Dnieper River in Kherson, inflicting heavy losses and potentially threatening the M14 highway that links to Crimea and the rest of the south.
This is the backdrop against which Russia’s exploitation of migrants on the Finnish border is taking place. With an overextended, exhausted, and overwhelmed military, hybrid warfare offers a means of pursuing broad Russian objectives that tilt the table in Russia’s favor in the event of a freeze in hostilities. More immediately, Putin also likely realizes that he needs to commit to an entire wartime economy, even if Russia suffers long-term consequences. For this, the closures of the final Finnish borders gives him the excuse of a new “iron curtain” that keeps military-aged males in Russia as Finland is the last neighboring country to Russia not to close all borders fully.
It is important not to underestimate the full scope of the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare playbook as Moscow is currently achieving objectives through information warfare, as well. The rise in anti-immigration, pro-Russian parties stemming from various migrant pushes linked back to Moscow gives hope for Putin that his forces can outlast Ukrainian military aid and ultimately bring Russia back into the fold of the global economy with frozen territorial gains.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist, former Marine, and journalist born in New York. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world affected by war, and also tells the stories of war victims whose voices are never heard. You can find his bylines in the Modern War Institute, UK Defence Journal, 19FortyFive, The Geopolitics, SOFREP, the National Herald, Journal of Forensic Psychology, HeritageDaily, and Byline Times.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: kremlin.ru, via Wikimedia Commons