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Russia Is Taking Advantage of the Invasion-Stirred Migration Crisis

As food problems worsen, new refugees head for Europe.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
A group of migrants prepare to use an inflatable boat to attempt an illegal crossing to Britain near the northern French city of Gravelines on July 11.
A group of migrants prepare to use an inflatable boat to attempt an illegal crossing to Britain near the northern French city of Gravelines on July 11.
A group of migrants prepare to use an inflatable boat to attempt an illegal crossing to Britain near the northern French city of Gravelines on July 11. Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin has created a new weapon against the West. More than 6 million Ukrainians have sought refuge in European Union countries; now they’re being followed by a new migration wave from countries harmed by the absence of Ukrainian grain. But in addition to the Ukrainian refugees, the number of asylum-seekers who arrived in the EU during the first half of this year almost doubled compared with the same period last year. The interim head of Frontex, the EU border agency, is warning of “waves of migration” as a result of Russia blocking exports of Ukrainian grain, which is creating food crises globally.

By creating migration waves that will destabilize Europe, Putin is harming the continent without directly using military force against countries outside Ukraine. As ever, Putin is happy to generate chaos that will hurt others—and to take advantage of it for Russia.

Between January and June this year, 114,720 migrants arrived in the EU illegally. Most Ukrainians, whom the EU has committed to hosting, aren’t included in this number. The growing throng of people arriving illegally instead includes Afghans, Bangladeshis, Egyptians, Tunisians, Syrians, and Iraqis. On the Central Mediterranean route, Frontex registered 25,164 illegal border crossings, 23 percent more than in the first six months of 2021. Most of them were Bangladeshis, Egyptians, and Tunisians. But many more people are being smuggled via the Western Balkans; illegal entries into the EU via this route were up by nearly 200 percent compared with the same period last year. Many others are arriving via the Eastern Mediterranean and applying for asylum in Cyprus, where numbers were up by 125 percent.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has created a new weapon against the West. More than 6 million Ukrainians have sought refuge in European Union countries; now they’re being followed by a new migration wave from countries harmed by the absence of Ukrainian grain. But in addition to the Ukrainian refugees, the number of asylum-seekers who arrived in the EU during the first half of this year almost doubled compared with the same period last year. The interim head of Frontex, the EU border agency, is warning of “waves of migration” as a result of Russia blocking exports of Ukrainian grain, which is creating food crises globally.

By creating migration waves that will destabilize Europe, Putin is harming the continent without directly using military force against countries outside Ukraine. As ever, Putin is happy to generate chaos that will hurt others—and to take advantage of it for Russia.

Between January and June this year, 114,720 migrants arrived in the EU illegally. Most Ukrainians, whom the EU has committed to hosting, aren’t included in this number. The growing throng of people arriving illegally instead includes Afghans, Bangladeshis, Egyptians, Tunisians, Syrians, and Iraqis. On the Central Mediterranean route, Frontex registered 25,164 illegal border crossings, 23 percent more than in the first six months of 2021. Most of them were Bangladeshis, Egyptians, and Tunisians. But many more people are being smuggled via the Western Balkans; illegal entries into the EU via this route were up by nearly 200 percent compared with the same period last year. Many others are arriving via the Eastern Mediterranean and applying for asylum in Cyprus, where numbers were up by 125 percent.

Why the sudden increase? Aija Kalnaja, Frontex’s interim executive director, said last week that “grain transport from Ukraine is hampered, and that will create waves of migration,” adding that the EU should “prepare also for refugees coming from other areas because of the food security” issue.

That’s because Ukraine alone ordinarily feeds 400 million people per year with its food exports, and now it can barely feed anyone outside Ukraine. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 50 countries, primarily in Africa and the Middle East, rely on Russia and Ukraine for at least 30 percent of their wheat imports, and the World Food Program used to get half of its wheat from Ukraine. Before the war, Egypt, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Tunisia were the world’s top importers of Ukrainian wheat.

Russia’s destruction and blockade of Ukrainian ports have knocked out a key part of the global grain trade. River and rail transport of agricultural goods reached 2.5 million metric tons last month—up from barely anything in March but far short of the 5-6 million metric tons that Ukraine typically exports every month. The food insecurity caused by Russia’s invasion is creating fresh hardships worldwide.

Now the first wave of such indirect war victims is crashing toward Europe—and will almost certainly be followed by more and larger waves. “Anything that governments can do together to make sure people don’t have to make the trek is important,” said Thomas Smolich, the Jesuit Refugee Service’s international director. “Making the trek is obviously a subjective choice, one sometimes based on exaggerated claims about the ease of life in Europe promised by smugglers, but anything we can do is important. At the moment, many people in affected countries are sizing up the situation. They’re concluding that the food situation will get worse and that inflation means they’ll get even less for their money and deciding that they should seize the opportunity now. Not everyone can make the trek, but many who can will.”

But, said Stefano Pontecorvo, an Italian diplomat who served as NATO’s top civilian official in Afghanistan until the evacuation last August, “politicians and our security agencies have not yet realized the risk this poses. The absolute numbers are still small, and that’s what politicians look at. When we get several boats every day, that’s when politicians start paying attention. But then it will be too late.”

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson made much the same point last week. “We should not wait until we have a crisis at our borders. We … need to reach out earlier on,” she said, pointing to a planned anti-smuggling partnership with Niger, a hub for smugglers and migrants. The Italian Navy already regularly patrols the international waters off North Africa, and Italy’s Carabinieri train police forces in North and West African countries in effective and humane policing practices.

But with food prices rising rapidly and no solution in sight, an anti-smuggling partnership with Niger is not going to stem the tide. After years of fresh border control efforts, smugglers seem to be focusing on novel routes, such as that to ethnically divided Cyprus, which migrants reach via Turkey, arriving in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north of the island and seeking asylum in the Greek Cypriot south.

This chaos may have been precisely what Putin hoped for when he invaded Ukraine. To be sure, Putin may not have directly realized that destroying Ukrainian fields and blocking the country’s Black Sea shipping would trigger the food crisis that has now come to pass. But his record is one of opportunism—and of a willingness to create chaos with wide-ranging effects.

Indeed, much as his Belarusian comrade Aleksandr Lukashenko did last year, Putin is making use of illegal migration as the ultimate form of gray-zone aggression—aggression that harms another country but doesn’t involve military force. While Lukashenko encouraged and directly facilitated illegal migration, arranging for migrants to get to Minsk and be transported to the borders of Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, the migrants in the Russian-engineered wave are making their way to Europe on their own. But the effect is the same: disruption in the destination countries. That disruption will grow quickly as remaining supplies of Ukrainian grain run dry and more people head toward Europe.

How is the EU going to counter this devious form of aggression? Unleashing an artificial refugee wave directed at Russia is neither feasible nor ethical. And while it’s clear that Putin rejoices in any opportunity to sow chaos in Europe, wars launched by other countries have launched European refugee waves, too. The Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s led countless young men to flee to Europe, but it’s hard to argue that Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had European chaos in mind when they locked horns. And Washington’s hands are not exactly clean here either. While it wasn’t an intended goal, America’s wars—and withdrawals from them—have created their own waves of disruption. Last year, the top three nationalities applying for asylum in the EU were Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis.

However the problem is defined, the EU will have to limit the current disruption triggered by Russia. The first step is clearly to help countries from Egypt to Bangladesh get wheat from other sources. For his part, U.S. President Joe Biden has already announced $1 billion in U.S. food aid to the Middle East and North Africa. And in the longer term, countries should learn that in a globalized world, regimes with little to lose can benefit from unleashing waves of disruption that are cheap, involve little risk, and are virtually impossible to retaliate against.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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