For the last three decades, Europe’s leaders have pursued a noble strategy to prevent conflict using trade, aid and diplomacy. But their reliance on soft power has had an unintended consequence: it has left them divorced from reality.

Soft-power tools are honourable and often pragmatic methods of conflict prevention and, at times, resolution. Just look at America’s Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after the Second World War, or the foreign aid provided today by the wealthy West to smaller and poorer nations.

However, as we are now seeing, it is deluded to conclude that evil men can be stopped by soft power alone. In the days since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Europeans have been reminded of the necessity of having a well-funded and well-trained military. It has also become clear that we need to abandon our irrational energy policy, which imagines meeting Europe’s energy needs exclusively from ‘renewable’ sources.

Nevertheless, a key battlefield in the conflict playing out in Ukraine continues to be overlooked — and that is immigration policy. This is, of course, nothing new: just as soft power has been divorced from hard power, so immigration policy has been divorced from national security, even though it has been a destabilising factor in Europe for at least a decade.

Both sides of the immigration equation — the push and pull factors — dramatically affect Europe’s national security. The unyielding flow of immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia remains a source of civil unease. Social cohesion and national identity have become incendiary issues in polling stations across Europe. Intolerance towards immigrants is high and extremist parties remain popular. At the same time, radical Islamist extremism and the constant threat of terrorism still linger.

Add to this the burden on local resources — on housing, healthcare, education and policing — and it’s hardly surprising that the status quo exacerbates resentment towards immigrants, while undermining trust in the political class. It is no accident that Putin and other adversaries have been using misinformation and disinformation to support anti-immigrant parties and other groups on the far-Right.

What is less well-known, however, is how immigrants have become a tool of war — one that is increasingly deployed by cruel, inhumane autocrats such as Putin.

Since the start of this conflict, at least half a million Ukrainians have crossed into neighbouring countries; according to the EU’s latest warnings, that figure could rise to seven million. To put that in perspective, when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, roughly 1.5 million Ukrainians were displaced. But even then, there was no exodus to the EU; the refugees simply relocated to other regions within the country.

This time, however, it’s unclear if Putin will leave any Ukrainian territory for them to flee to. And make no mistake: this is all part his plan. Indeed, Putin has become the world’s leading advocate of hybrid warfare. In 2016, US General Philip Breedlove, Head of Nato forces in Europe, recognised this, warning that “Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponising migration from Syria”.

Yet in recent years, it’s been in Libya that Putin has pursued his most fierce — and secret — weaponisation of migrants. There, Russia exploits its increased presence by collaborating with militias to foster and facilitate crippling migrant flows into Europe. By deploying Russia’s ‘private’ military companies in the region, Putin all but controls the most significant routes for mass migration from Africa and the Middle East to Europe — and therefore has the power to cripple economies and sow societal division.

Take Khalifa Hafar, the commander of the Libyan National Army — a nominal national force that is really an amalgamation of local militias. Hafar is currently trying to rebrand himself as Libya’s next President, but in reality is nothing more than a Russian-speaking warlord who benefits from the support of at least 1,500 Russian mercenaries associated with the Wagner Group.

What would drive Putin to dirty his hands in the chaotic, tribal world of North African politics? As Mark Grey, Adjunct Professor at the U.S. Army War College, has observed: “Large tribes control vast territories in the region, operate beyond the control of nation states and ignore borders. Just as Italy pays militias to curtail migration from western Libya, Russia can pay tribes and militias to just as easily encourage and facilitate migration as control it.”

The impact this has on the West must not be ignored; and neither must the failure of our leaders to recognise it. Europe needs immigrants and immigrants need Europe. Years ago, as this mutual need became apparent, European leaders could have developed a rational system to manage the issue. Instead, they found themselves unable to escape an ideological impasse: one moment, they issued virtue-signalling declarations of solidarity and compassion for immigrants; the next, they made panic-stricken concessions to populist parties. How else should we characterise Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2015 wild reception of Syrian refugees, followed just a year later by her €6 billion EU deal with the President of Turkey after he threatened to open the floodgates?

For too long, Europe has maintained a contradictory stance towards mass migration from poor countries, lurching from compassionate rhetoric about asylum seekers to the development of an elaborate and ineffective system of migration management. But as the recent days — indeed, the recent years — have shown, with the advent of hybrid warfare and the abuse of migrant flows as a weapon to blackmail Europe, it is time not only to review minor features of the existing system but to overhaul the entire framework.

What needs to happen is not easy, but it is clear. Some of the measures we should take have dominated discussion for years, but are yet to garner widespread political support. For instance, for all the outcry they inspire in Western countries, border walls and fences do have their uses. When used appropriately, they not only deter crime syndicates and people traffickers, but also aggressive autocrats such as Putin. If EU countries had a functioning immigration system, the Kremlin’s use of hybrid warfare would be rendered ineffective.

More crucially, we need to simplify the international and European treaties that govern migration flows and those seeking asylum. And as the current crisis demonstrates, this requires the West to integrate immigration policy into the broader national security agenda. It should be an issue for the defence departments, rather than interior and justice civil servants. Whether we like it or not, mass immigration is now a military weapon. And it should be treated as such.

Obviously, this won’t be remedied overnight. But Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has created a unique opportunity to question all the sacred cows of European policy. Four short months ago, it was unthinkable to have a serious conversation in Germany about the retention of nuclear energy. Now, faced with the stark reality that energy is inseparable from national security and the foolishness of having to depend on Putin, we are witnessing a welcome change in attitude.

The same must happen with immigration policy. Yes, there must always be a place for compassion — and it’s encouraging to see the EU and UK welcome Ukrainian refugees where they can. But if we really want to incapacitate Putin, that won’t be enough.

Immigration is now one of his most effective weapons. It may once have been unthinkable to overhaul international and European treaties to address this. But a new and harsh reality dictates otherwise.

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