NATO's top commander warned that Russia and Syria have turned the refugee crisis into a "weapon" against the West at a time when it lacks resources to counter a "resurgent, aggressive" Russia.
U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, who commands the 28-member military alliance, said the flow of hundreds of thousands of migrants from war-torn Syria into Europe has had a destabilizing effect throughout Europe, from the Balkans to Scandinavia, and that has worked to Moscow's advantage.
"Together, Russia and [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's] regime are deliberately weaponizing migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve," Breedlove told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on March 1.
Breedlove said Moscow and Damascus are deliberately fueling the mass displacement of Syrians, including through Russia's indiscriminate bombing of opposition targets and the Syrian leader's use of barrel bombs in civilian areas.
"These indiscriminate weapons used by both Bashar al-Assad, and the non-precision use of weapons by the Russian forces, 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," said Breedlove, who is also the commander of U.S. troops in Europe.
"This is putting great pressure on the nations of Europe," he said.
Potential Trojan Horses
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin dismissed Breedlove's accusations. "Shifting the blame: the specialist on bombing Afghan weddings has accused us of 'non-precise bombing'," Rogozin wrote on his Facebook page on March 2.
U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove
Breedlove said the massive flow of refugees is also bringing with it potential Trojan horses in the form of criminals and terrorists -- some of them Europeans who got training in Syria and may be planning attacks on the West.
"This criminality, the terrorists, and the returning foreign fighters are clearly a daily part of the refugee flow in Europe," Breedlove said.
The Islamic State group is "spreading like a cancer" within the flow of migrants, "taking advantage of paths of least resistance, threatening European nations," he said.
In addition to the dangers posed by terrorists, Breedlove warned that opposition to the large influx of migrants among nationalists in Europe could lead to violence.
NATO last month got involved in the refugee crisis for the first time through a new mission to patrol the Aegean Sea and stop people smugglers who have been ferrying migrants from Turkey to Greece.
The four-star general reaffirmed the assessment of other Pentagon top brass that Russia poses a growing threat to the United States itself.
"Russia has chosen to be an adversary and poses a long-term existential threat to the United States and to our European allies and partners," Breedlove said.
"Russia is eager to exert unquestioned influence over its neighboring states in its buffer zone... so has used military force to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, Georgia, and others, like Moldova."
He said the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in the last week had gotten reports of 450 attacks along the front lines in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists are fighting with government forces.
"The report from the ambassador is there are several disturbing trends in those attacks, and that is that some of them are now happening in places that were heretofore quiet," Breedlove said.
He said Russia has put "well above" 1,000 pieces of military hardware into Ukraine in the past year, including armored personnel carriers and artillery.
Breedlove said Russia has been increasingly aggressive in the Arctic as well, militarizing the region. It has been testing sophisticated submarines in the Atlantic between Britain, Iceland, and Greenland, he said.
Breedlove was in Washington partly to lobby for support for a proposed sharp increase in money available to U.S. forces in Europe to counter the Russian threat.
U.S. President Barack Obama proposed quadrupling the coming year's budget to $3.4 billion to carry out NATO's European Reassurance Initiative.
With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP