Putin’s Role in the Refugee Crisis


Since the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, international institutions in general, and the European Union in particular, have grown in influence. EU countries have attempted to increase interdependence through building economic, ideological, and security ties. Efforts to emphasize a common European identity have had mixed results: inter-European wars have been few and far in between, but the recent rise in nationalism highlights the deep entrenchment of state identities. From the point of view of many Europeans, the ongoing refugee crisis, stemming from the war in Syria, has been a crisis of borders, and thus a crisis of individual state sovereignty[1]. The result has been a politically charged resurgence of nationalism driven by those who wish to maintain the social, cultural, and economic identities of their countries. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man suspicious and wary of the European Union, fragmentation between states is a welcome development.

Now, despite millions of refugees seeking protection, Russia argues that other European countries should bear the vast majority of responsibility. As of April 2016, Russia has granted only two Syrians a refugee status since 2011, while about 1,300 have been granted temporary asylum –a lesser form of protection[2]. Russian officials reject any responsibility to increase these numbers. In response to UN calls to increase refugee settlement, Gennady Gatilov, a Russian deputy foreign minister, claimed Russia’s role was simply to “[assist] the Syrian government in combating [sic] terrorist groups”[3]. Instead, Russia argues that the burden of the Syrian refugee crisis should fall on countries whose policies have contributed to the Syrian war[4].

In reality, Russia’s response to its own militancy problems has exacerbated the violence in Syria. Russia has seen the rise of its own extreme Islamist movement over the past two decades and has strategically shifted this burden toward the Syrian people. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Islamist militarism has largely grown out of the First and Second Chechen wars (1994-1996 and 1999-2009), as terrorist groups such as the Caucasus Emirate now operate within the North Caucasus region. Many young people have turned to extremist groups as a means of resisting a Russian government that they see as unnecessarily violent and repressive. In response to the growth of this Islamist militant movement, Putin has recently employed a unique strategy of facilitating extremist emigration from Russia. A special investigation by Reuters claimed that in the lead up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Russian security services encouraged militants to leave Russia to fight along ISIS in the Syrian Civil War as part of an effort to reduce the risk of domestic attacks[5]. In October 2015, Putin stated that between 5,000 and 7,000 militants from ex-Soviet states were fighting alongside jihadist groups in the Middle East[6]. In June 2015, Russia’s Nikolai Bordyuzha, then secretary general of a military alliance of several ex-Soviet countries named the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), raised this estimate to 10,000 militants[7]. This strategy seems to have been effective in minimizing violence within Russian borders; the number of casualties in the North Caucasus insurgency declined each year from 2010-2014, with the overall death toll falling by more than half, from 754 to 341[8].

In contrast, the UN and Arab League Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, estimates that 400,000 have died in the Syrian War[9]. In light of Russia intentionally funneling Islamist extremists to ISIS, claims that they are not responsible for contributing to such extensive violence are absurd. While officially supporting the Assad regime in its fight against ISIS, Putin has strengthened ISIS forces. The effect has been to relocate the burden of Islamist violence within Russia towards a region that was already suffering from widespread conflict.

Refusing to acknowledge Russia’s role in aggravating this bloody conflict is a calculated political move. Putin perceives other European states, institutionally united at the expense of an increasingly isolated Russia, as a threat to Russian power. Putin’s opposition to Ukrainian inclusion in NATO and his willingness to annex Crimea in 2014 speak volumes about his fears over growing European unity. Accordingly, the Syrian conflict has served a dual purpose for Russian national interests: disarming Russia’s extreme Islamist movement of many of its most radical members while simultaneously destabilizing Europe.

What Putin’s strategic considerations mean for the future of those affected by the conflict remains unclear. Putin must consider that if the Syrian War does end, which is looking increasingly likely after the Syrian government regained control of Aleppo in mid-December[10], many of the extremists who joined ISIS are likely to return home, experienced in and desensitized to mass brutality. However, if violence in Syria continues to occupy Russian Islamists, produce refugees destined for Europe, and strain the resources of European states, it is entirely possible that Putin will quietly attempt to facilitate such violence. At the very least, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has shown a propensity for brutality that Putin has been reluctant to limit. Given the power dynamics at play in Syria and neighboring countries, it is reasonable to expect Putin to continue to prioritize Russian national interests over any concern for those most in danger.


[1] Traub, James. Foreign Policy. “Europe Wishes to Inform You That the Refugee Crisis Is Over.” N.p., 18 Oct. 2016. Web. 09 Dec. 2016.

[2] Human Rights Watch “Russia: Failing to Do Fair Share to Help Syrian Refugees.” N.p., Web. 9 Dec. 2016.

[3] Nebehay, Stephanie. Thomson Reuters. “Few New Pledges at U.N. Talks to Resettle Syrian Refugees.” Reuters, Web. 19 Dec. 2016.

[4] Koshkin, Pavel. Russia Direct. “Will Russia Contribute to Solving Syria’s Refugee Crisis?”  N.p., Web. 19 Dec. 2016.

[5] Maria Tsevetkova. Thomson Reuters. “How Russia Allowed Homegrown Radicals to Go and Fight in Syria.” Reuters Investigates, Web. 14 Oct. 2016.

[6] Margarita Antidze and Maria Tsvetkova. Thomson Reuters. “Ex-Soviet Exiles Give Islamic State Violence a Russian Accent.”  N.p., 12 Sept. 2016.

[7] Ibid.

[8] RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. “Is The North Caucasus Suddenly Safe?”, N.p., Web. 12 Sept. 2016.

[9] Al Jazeera. “Syria Death Toll: UN Envoy Estimates 400,000 Killed.” News | Al Jazeera. N.p., Web. 19 Dec. 2016.

[10] Hubbard, Ben. The New York Times. “Turning Point in Syria as Assad Regains All of Aleppo.” The New York Times, 22 Dec. 2016. Web. 08 Jan. 2017.

Image source: Kremlin.ru

About the Author 

Jacob Merkle is an intern with the Armed Conflicts Project at the ERA Institute. 

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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