With authoritarianism on the march, democracies must respond to the weapons of war and the weaponization of migration with moral clarity.
In the face of a Russian invasion, the stories of Ukrainians preparing for war, conducting drills with wooden rifles, have steeled their nation’s resolve. Liberal democracies worldwide have responded with troops, weaponry, and economic sanctions. There is a coherence and focus to the global alliance that has emerged.
Yet, a factor looms that could chip away at this unified front.
Should war break out, millions of Ukrainian families, young and old, will flee to safer lands. Is the global alliance ready for this humanitarian crisis? Do we understand how it will be politically weaponized?
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently said on ABC News that if President Putin moves forward with a full invasion, “It will certainly create enormous casualties within the civilian population and so this could create a … tragedy, quite frankly, in terms of refugee flow and displaced people.”
In preparation for anywhere between one and five million Ukrainian refugees, the New York Times’ Eric Schmitt reports that troops in Poland from the 82nd Airborne Division are working with Polish forces to set up processing centers. Should the large-scale movement of people take place, Schmitt points out, “That could lead to the largest flood of refugees in Europe since nearly a million Syrian refugees arrived in 2015, a surge that had a profound impact on European politics by bolstering far-right parties.”
Which, in the long run, could be as dangerous as the war Putin seeks.
Last weekend, Brookings Institution President General John Allen told Andrea Mitchell, “We should remember that in 2015, just two million refugees in Europe really played an enormous role in affecting European politics and European economic stability.”
In that case, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán was the central character who weaponized migration for political gain. The strategy paid dividends for Orbán as the European Union buckled to his political rhetoric and policy demands. It was no surprise that in the run up to Hungary’s 2019 election, Orbán said if the nation becomes an “immigrant country,” it would bring “terror, women and girls will no longer be safe and our cultural identity will weaken and slowly evaporate.”
In the case of Ukraine, Orbán won’t be able to wield the racist, anti-Islam, cudgel he used to demagogue Syrians seeking protection. Yet, as the Associated Press reports, he faces an April 3 parliamentary election and, in general, has sidled up to Russia to curry favor (and gas shipments). In other words, he will have reason to return to his 2015 blueprint.
Meanwhile, Poland is preparing for “various scenarios” should there be an influx of Ukrainian refugees. The Guardian’s Shaun Walker and Lorenzo Tondo report that Poland’s deputy interior minister, Maciej Wąsik, told Polish radio, “We have to be prepared for a wave of up to a million people.” In this case, Poland “is already home to 2 million Ukrainians.”
While the country is preparing to accommodate Ukrainian refugees, recall that when Belarus created a political and humanitarian crisis by forcing refugees from the Middle East across the Polish border last year, Poland’s leadership framed the conflict as a migrant “invasion.” Saying the quiet part out loud about the current crisis, Wąsik recently described Ukrainians as “real refugees” in need of help.
All to say that among the European Union countries in the region — Poland, Hungary and Slovakia — there is a level of solidarity when it comes to meeting the needs of Ukrainian refugees. But it is incredibly fragile. And forces will attempt to crack this unity.
If millions of Ukrainians seek refuge in Europe, influential figures will weaponize the crisis. In fact, in one way or another, Tucker Carlson, former U.S. President Trump, and J.D. Vance have already conflated the situation in Ukraine with the U.S.-Mexico border. They have asked why deploy resources to Ukraine when, allegedly, such resources could be used at our borders. Or, in the case of Trump, wishing he could use Putin’s “peace force … on our southern border.”
Whether or not a significant number of Ukrainians make it to the U.S., the apocalyptic narrative Carlson, Trump, Vance and others spout will fit neatly into the stories of “invasion” they circulate regarding Central Americans and Afghans (but not Canadian truckers).
The U.S., along with Europe, cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the Afghan evacuation or Syrian refugee crisis. These nations must take direct responsibility for the care and protection of Ukrainians fleeing a Putin onslaught. Politically and financially. Otherwise, as Kelly Greenhill wrote in her analysis of the political weaponization of migration, “For advanced liberal democracies, buying off others to keep migrants at bay may also come at a high political and moral cost.”
In addition to deploying the troops and resources necessary to process refugees once they enter the European Union, President Biden, along with cabinet officials, must speak directly to the importance of welcoming and protecting Ukrainian refugees. Furthermore, as advocated for by the Niskanen Center, the Biden administration should designate new Temporary Protected Status and Special Student Relief for eligible Ukrainians. These are simple and powerful steps that send a clear message to the world.
The weaponization of people fleeing the weapons of conflict is a tried-and-true tactic of authoritarians. For the sake of Ukrainian refugees today, and those forcibly displaced in the future, we must act with urgency and clarity.