Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, are "weaponizing" the region's refugee crisis and are using it to undermine Europe's security and unity, according to a top U.S. and NATO commander in Europe.
U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander in Europe for the 28-member military alliance NATO, told a hearing of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that Russia and Syria were working together trying to undermine European security.
"Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponizing migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve," he told the committee.
Syria's alleged use of barrel bombs against its own civilians, as well as Russia's "indiscriminate" air strikes in Syria ostensibly -- used to help the West combat Islamic State but seemingly targeting rebel groups who oppose the Assad government -- had been aimed at displacing civilians and creating a refugee crisis, Breedlove added.
"Barrel bombs are designed to terrorize, get people out of their homes, get them on the road and make them someone else's problem. These indiscriminate weapons used by both Assad and the non-precision use of weapons by Russia, I can't find any other reason for them other than to cause refugees to be on the move and make them someone else's problem."
If Russia is indeed using the migrant crisis as a way of destabilizing its neighbor Europe, then it appears to be working. The European Union (EU) is struggling with the numbers of migrants and refugees arriving on the continent, most of whom coming from the Middle East and Syria.
With over a million migrants arriving in 2015 alone, according to the UN, the new arrivals have put strains on the region's resources and political unity with southern European countries such as recession-hit Greece hit hardest by the amount of people arriving by sea.
The migrant crisis has also caused widespread tension and division among European countries who disagree over how to manage and relocate and the migrants. A number of countries have closed their borders, effectively leaving migrants stranded in countries –such as Greece - and making the problem worse.
On Wednesday, it was reported that the EU is about to spend hundreds of millions of euros of humanitarian aid after the UN warned of a humanitarian disaster potentially building on Greece's borders.
Continuing his warning on Russian military aggression, Breedlove said in a written statement to the committee, which accompanied his testimony, that despite the U.S. And Europe trying to engage with Russia as a partner in the past "it is now clear that Russia does not share common security objectives with the West."
"Instead, it continues to view the United States and NATO as a threat to its own security. Since the beginning of 2014, President Putin has sought to undermine the rules-based system of European security and attempted to maximize his power on the world stage," he said.
He told the hearing that Russian aggression was one of two "primary threats to our security interests," the other being growing instability in the Middle East and particularly the rise of the militant group, the so-called Islamic State, which he said was "spreading like a cancer."
Breedlove was speaking to the committee in support of more funding for U.S. forces in Europe, a region which the U.S. views as a key strategic partner to prevent Russian gaining more geopolitical influence. He said Russia saw the U.S and NATO as an obstacle to its reestablishing its position on the world stage and wanted to "rewrite international rules."
"Russia seeks to fracture our unity and challenge our resolve," he said, "Russia recognizes strength and sees weakness as its opportunity."