Putin seeking to weaponise threat of mass migration, warns Estonian PM

<span>Kaja Kallas: ‘The lesson from 1938 and 1939 is that if aggression pays off somewhere, it will be taken up elsewhere.’</span><span>Photograph: Gints Ivuskans/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Kaja Kallas: ‘The lesson from 1938 and 1939 is that if aggression pays off somewhere, it will be taken up elsewhere.’Photograph: Gints Ivuskans/AFP/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin is seeking to weaponise the threat of mass migration to divide and weaken Europe as supporters of Ukraine struggle to maintain unity to defeat Russia, Kaja Kallas, the Estonian prime minister, says.

“What our adversaries know is migration is our vulnerability,” she said. “The aim is to make life really impossible in Ukraine so that there would be migration pressure to Europe, and this is what they are doing.”

Speaking in Tallinn on Friday, she said Russia had already created the migration pressure through disruption in Syria and in Africa via the Wagner group.

“I think we have to understand that Russia is weaponising migration. Our adversaries are weaponising migration.

“They push the migrants over the border, and they create problems for the Europeans because they weaponise this since with human rights, you have to accept those people. And that is, of course, water to the mill of the far right.”

Kallas admitted the plight of the Ukrainians on the front was “very serious” and European promises of extra weapons had not been delivered, something that could be rectified if Nato took charge of coordinating weapons delivery. “The problem is that our promises do not save lives,” she said.

Kallas is one of many European politicians trying to spell out the many negative consequences to Europe of a Ukrainian defeat, and rebut those who claim such a reverse could be contained.

She was speaking the day after the former Estonian president Toomas Ilves predicted that if Ukraine fell to Russia as many as 30 million Ukrainians would seek to flee. “That is the threat we face due to our inaction,” he said, adding that Europe had a “complete meltdown” when faced with 2 million refugees from the Middle East in 2015.

A pamphlet produced by pro-Ukrainian NGOs has detailed how Russian shelling between October 2022 and January 2023 had increased migration out of Ukraine by a quarter compared with the previous year.

The recent round of attacks has targeted electricity generation rather than transmission. Olena Halushka, board head at the international centre for a Ukrainian Victory, said: “Right now they are trying to bomb Ukraine into the stone age,” adding that in the past two months more damage had been inflicted than the whole of the winter of 2023.

She said: “Europe needs to think about Kharkiv, a city the size of Munich without energy this winter and then think about the financial implications of tens of millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war due to fear of occupation”.

Kallas said Russian assaults were now targeting Ukrainian cities every day and night.

She conceded that, based on geography and history, some countries in Europe did not see the threat of a Ukrainian defeat in the same way. “They don’t see and they don’t believe that if Ukraine falls Europe is in danger, the whole of Europe, maybe some countries, but not the whole of Europe”.

She said she feared a mistake was being made similar to the late 1930s, when linked conflicts were seen as isolated events. Kallas, tipped as a possible successor to Josep Borrell as EU high commissioner for foreign policy, cited links between the conflicts in Azerbaijan and Armenia, the Middle East, and the South China Sea. She said the same error was made in the 1930s about the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the German occupation of Austria and the Sino-Japanese war.

“The lesson from 1938 and 1939 is that if aggression pays off somewhere, it will be taken up elsewhere. Ukraine’s defeat is something all aggressors will learn from. They will learn that in 2024, bluntly, you can just colonise another country and nothing happens to you.”

She pointed to what she described as baby steps to strengthening the European defence architecture, including a European defence fund, the increase in individual nation state defence spending, and the proposal for a shared defence debt bond to boost spending. She denied Estonia had had any serious discussions about sending troops to Ukraine, while arguing at the same time it was better to keep Putin guessing about Europe’s plans.

She said it was also a valid criticism that Ukraine was not moving fast enough to mobilise more troops.

Meanwhile, Russia’s foreign ministry warned the west it was playing with fire by allowing Ukraine to use western missiles and weapons to strike Russia, and said it would not leave such actions unanswered.

The foreign ministry said in a statement that it saw the hand of the US and Britain behind a recent spate of attacks, and blamed Washington and London for escalating the conflict by authorising Ukraine to use long-range rockets and heavy weapons they had supplied against Russian targets.

“Once again, we should like to unequivocally warn Washington, London, Brussels and other western capitals, as well as Kyiv, which is under their control, that they are playing with fire. Russia will not leave such encroachments on its territory unanswered,” the ministry said.

Reuters contributed to this report