Kathryn Cassidy and Svitlana Odynets set out how Russia’s recent efforts to push undocumented migrants into Finland fits into a wider pattern of weaponising migration to disrupt and destabilise as part of its hybrid war against its western neighbours.
Before Christmas, Finland closed the last of its eight land border crossings with Russia. This came in response to the latest incident involving the Kremlin and its allies actively pushing undocumented migrants across the border. Finland has announced that the border closure will be extended for another four weeks, with it now set to remain closed until 11 February.
This is not a new development but rather the latest move by Putin’s regime and its allies to use migration as a tool of destabilisation. It has been pursuing a dual strategy of pushing migrants across the EU’s eastern borders at the same time as spreading fake news about migration in order to disrupt European unity.
Helsinki claimed that almost 1,000 undocumented migrants had arrived in Finland via Russia in the two weeks preceding the closure, across a border where less than 100 asylum seekers had entered Finland during the first six months of 2023.
The Finnish newspaper Iltalehti reported that Russian embassies have started issuing visas to people from the Horn of Africa to enter Russia and then continue their journey. Russia’s other northern neighbours, Estonia and Norway, were also set to follow Finland’s example and close their borders too.
The same strategy was used by the Kremlin at its borders with Finland and Norway in 2015-16, after sanctions were introduced following the 2014 annexation of Crimea and start of the war against Ukraine in Donbas.
By 2021, Russian ally Belarus was being accused of similar tactics by its EU neighbours Lithuania and Poland, where authorities believed that those being pushed across the border were being deliberately trafficked by the Belarusian authorities. The migrants were brought to Belarus by tour operators and (amid a relaxation of visa rules) transported to the Lithuanian border and given support to cross it.
Finland claims the recent influx of migrants orchestrated by Russian authorities is in retaliation for them joining NATO in April 2023. Arabic-language chats on the encrypted messaging service Telegram have been found to contain offers of assistance in applying for three-month Russian study visa for a Russian language course and transportation to the Russian-Finnish border costing between USD1,300 and USD2,800.
This strategy of pushing migrants across its western borders needs to be understood in the context of Putin’s wider efforts to disrupt liberal democracies, including the war in Ukraine. A recent BBC report showed that Russian authorities have also been attempting to coerce migrants, who come to Russia in order to cross into the EU, to fight for Russia in the war.
Orchestrating these movements of people into the EU is part of Russia’s hybrid war against its western neighbours and liberal democracies more generally. This strategy creates anxieties amongst European publics and states alike surrounding border security at a time when domestic actors on the right of European politics are also pushing similar narratives to garner support.
This strategy not only highlights the porosity of borders and draws resources into border securitisation but has also been effective in creating conflict within the EU and its member and associated states.
The EU has been under increasing pressure to uphold the fundamental rights of migrants in the face of member states’ pushbacks, particularly in Southern Europe. But migrants rights’ and humanitarian organisations continue to report on state border forces’ use of ‘pushbacks’, which are seemingly in contravention of the principle of ‘non-refoulement’ – whereby a person cannot be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm.
Polish border guards have been using pushbacks against undocumented migrants crossing the border from Belarus since 2021, when the Polish authorities introduced a law attempting to legitimise these actions. Estonia passed similar legislation in August 2022.
Putin has also publicly questioned the right of some groups of migrants, specifically those from Middle East and North Africa to apply for asylum. He claims such migrants have difficulties in meeting Western societies’ cultural norms and regularly stresses that these migration flows are connected to terrorist organisations, obfuscating Russia’s involvement. He has made also made more explicit attacks on Atlanticism by claiming the migration crisis in the European Union is the EU’s retribution for “blindly following American instructions”.
In border and migration politics, the Kremlin has found a key weakness for undermining liberal democracies and is sure to use it at every available opportunity to condemn these democracies’ involvement in global affairs. After Hamas’ attack on Israel on 7 October 2023, Maria Zakharova from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, said that it would be better for Western Europe to become more concerned with what awaits their countries with “a colossal influx of migrants”, and not with Russian politics as it is today.
In countering Russian aggression and developing border and migration policies, it would be prudent for those responsible in the UK and Europe to consider more directly the ways in which the Kremlin seeks to use border and migration politics to undermine unity on matters of migration and boost its own power both domestically and internationally.