On March 13 at a meeting in Astrakhan, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council claimed unspecified foreign intelligence agencies had “stepped up subversive activity” supposedly with the aim of “destabilizing” Russia. Patrushev didn’t cite any concrete incidents of such “destabilization. He was also unclear as to whether he meant “illegal immigration” to Western Europe or to Russia.
Data shows few Syrian refugees have been able to enter Russia. The Russian Federal Migration Service reports only about 7,000 Syrian migrants in Russia, compared to millions absorbed by Turkey and other neighbors.
As Voice of America has reported, Russia is a very unwelcoming place for those fleeing violence in Syria – which Russia itself is partly responsible for.
The New York-based international monitoring group Human Rights Watch has criticized Russia for “not doing its fair share” to help Syrian refugees.
If Patrushev meant refugees coming to Europe (although he was speaking at a meeting about domestic issues), he is greatly exaggerating the role of Syrians or other Middle Easterners in terrorist attacks.
German security officials have said attacks in Germany have not been made by Syrian or other Middle Eastern immigrants but by those from Afghanistan or Pakistan, and most terrorist attacks in the last year were not made by refugees.
Suspects in the Turkish nightclub attack January 1, 2017 were Uighurs, and not from Kyrgyzstan as originally reported although Turkish authorities have said the suspects in the June 28, 2016 terrorist attack on the airport in Istanbul came from Russia and Central Asia. To be sure, most terrorist attacks in Turkey in recent years have been committed by Kurdish extremists; Kurdish terrorists have not made attacks in Russia.
Patrushev also warned, “It is possible that the citizens of the region, who fought on the side of illegal armed groups in Syria, may return to the country."
This statement contradicts past claims by Russian law-enforcers that such fighters who attempt to return are intercepted and arrested or killed in raids. In 2015, Russian counter-terrorism officials said returning Islamic State (IS) militants were under “tight control”, with 41 arrested and 80 tried.
The Russian government has given various numbers over the years on how many Russian citizens have gone abroad to fight with IS; in November 2016, the figure given was 3,200.
Regarding a number of terrorist attacks within Russia, Russian law-enforcers have said those responsible had either returned from Syria or sworn allegiance to IS. Yet this is difficult to check as very few trials have been held of such persons, and the handful that have taken place have been closed to the press. Russian special forces have also killed hundreds of suspected Islamist extremists in raids, mainly in the North Caucasus; most of them appear to have been locals.
Patrushev also claimed in his March 14 speech that Ukraine "declared that they had carried out acts of sabotage." He did not provide evidence for this claim, but he is likely referring to the capture by Russia-backed separatists on March 10 of Ukrainian soldiers in a diversionary and reconnaissance group. These soldiers are reported to have "confessed to killings and terrorism,” including the assassinations of Oleh Anashchenko, the police chief in Luhansk and Mikhail Tolstykh (Givi) a separatist commander in Donetsk.
As the Ukrainians showed obvious signs of torture and confusion in forced videotaped confessions, their statements cannot be accepted as evidence. They were also paraded in a video a day after Ukraine completed its testimony in a suit against Russia for discrimination, kidnappings, and killings at the International Court of Justice.
While it is far from clear who may have been behind the assassinations of nine Russia-backed separatist commanders in the Donbas, some are pointing the finger at the separatists themselves or Russian intelligence.
Thus, Patrushev’s vague invocation of “foreign subversion” rests on unsubstantiated claims of immigrants from the Middle East in either Russia, where there are very few, or Europe, where they have not been implicated in terrorism. Moreover, many of the refugees in Europe have fled Syria where Russia has been accused of bombing civilian targets in its campaign to back President Bashar al-Assad.
He also invokes “returning ISIS fighters” as a problem in Russia, which may well be true, but he is contradicting past law-enforcement statements that this situation was under control. Finally, Patrushev targets Ukraine as responsible for “subversion,” while its forces are merely defending their sovereign territory in a conflict that Moscow is accused of stoking with money, weapons, and soldiers.