On 29 October a large crowd took over the Makhachkala Airport in the Republic of Dagestan, a region with a diminishing minority Jewish population of about 300 - 400 families. Rumours of “uninvited guests” circulated in local Telegram channels and resulted in the complete takeover of the airport. The crowd searched for ‘Israeli refugees’ on a flight coming from Tel Aviv whilst chanting anti-Semitic slogans such as ‘Death to the Jews’ as a response to the Israel-Gaza crisis. As a result of the unrest, sixty people were detained and President Vladimir Putin called an emergency security meeting.
The Russian authorities' response to this incident has been to call it an attempt to destabilise Russia, coming from either Western or Ukrainian powers. President Putin further attempted to redirect the public's attention away from this episode by linking it with the Russo-Ukrainian war. President Putin commented on the public’s outrage regarding the recent events in Gaza saying, “we [Russia] can only help Palestine in the fight against those who are behind this tragedy [Gaza]…. We, Russia, are fighting them within the framework of the Special Military Operation.”
Through such statements, Russia attempts to equate the Israel-Gaza crisis with the Russo-Ukrainian war, that is, the ‘Special Military Operation’, which pits Russia against the West in general, and the US in particular. President Putin has blamed the conflict on the failure of US foreign policy in the region, which aligns with Russia’s narrative on US' unipolarity and its simultaneous steady decline as a world power. Consequently, such a reading of the situation assumes that the Israel-Palestine conflict is thus not a matter of Palestinian self-determination, but rather another proxy war between the US, and forces opposing unipolar world order. This Analysis will discuss Russia’s narratives around the recent escalations in the Israel-Gaza crisis and the consequent anti-Semitic incidents in Russia’s southern regions.
Although Putin aims to achieve a “balancing act” within the Israel-Gaza crisis, Russia’s relations with Israel have become more complex following Israel’s condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin condemned Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza calling the actions “unjustifiable”, and stating that, “your fists clench and you get tears in your eyes” looking at photos of “bloodied, dead children”. These statements come as the war in Ukraine has taken second place in the news cycle but has nevertheless continued. Moreover, as part of the distraction campaign from the ongoing war in Ukraine - Russia-linked X (formerly Twitter) and Telegram channels have switched to posting primarily about the Israel-Gaza crisis, in an effort to redirect public attention from the war in Ukraine.
Russia-Hamas relations are mutually beneficial as the two legitimise each other’s political goals and align to stand against what the two deem to be behind both Israel and Ukraine - the US. While Hamas benefits from the political support from a permanent UN Security Council Member, Russia benefits from its rising stakes in the Global South through diplomatic relations with Hamas. Russia has also attempted to establish itself as a mediator in the Middle East by normalising the relations between Hamas and Syria following disagreement over the Syrian Civil War, earlier this year. Diplomatically, Putin aims to redirect attention away from the war in Ukraine and to further establish Russia as the face of anti-Americanism in the framework of the “axis of resistance” in order to challenge the US’ global hegemony. Similarly, President Putin’s support for Hamas in the recent escalations are another attempt to bring Russia’s influence back to the region.
As such, Putin has welcomed a Hamas delegation into the Kremlin. Russia has never designated Hamas as a terrorist group and has had public diplomatic relations with the group since March 2006. Moreover, Moscow’s warming relationship to Hamas has left the Palestinian Authority (PA) unsettled, wishing Russia’s diplomatic relationship with the Palestinian people was pursued through official Palestinian authorities. Previously, the PA had enjoyed close relations with the Kremlin. In October 2022, President Putin and PA President Mahmoud Abbas met to discuss the regional situation and Israel-Palestine relations. President Abbas expressed his discontent with the US foreign policy in the region, but on the contrary was “satisfied with Russia” and its position in the conflict.
Russia's Framing of Anti-Semitism in the Israel-Gaza Crisis and Ukraine War
The escalation in Israel-Gaza has served as a useful tool in the disinformation campaign of the Russian state. State media has used this war to perpetuate pro-Putin narratives and justify the invasion of Ukraine, or the so-called ‘Special Military Operation’. For example, Russian sources have reported that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is supplying weapons to Hamas. More specifically, several main themes have emerged from Russia’s state-controlled television channels and the Kremlin. First, the conflict is framed as a result of US foreign policy failures in the Middle East, where the US involvement in the Middle East is portrayed as the true root of the ongoing conflict. Second, the Kremlin, through state-controlled media, benefits from this conflict by presenting wars as normal in the current world. The desensitisation of the public to war combat footage and other war materials creates the illusion of war as a routine part of global affairs, thus justifying the ‘Special Military Operation’, and presenting Russia as a safe haven to its citizens. Furthermore, state television aims to present Putin, and Russia as the face of anti-Americanism, alongside China and Iran, by framing the Israel-Gaza crisis as a proxy war with the US. For example, reports of Russia rearranging the international world order through its diplomatic mediation of the conflict, such as by meeting the Hamas delegation, are not only intended to showcase its diplomatic leverage to the West, but also to Putin’s audience at home.
Additionally, Russian sources have been pushing the sentiment that the West has abandoned its alliance with Ukraine, who is instead focusing its efforts on the Israel-Gaza crisis. This narrative aims to showcase to its Ukrainian audience that the West must choose between support for Israel or Ukraine – and that Ukraine is better positioned by aligning itself with Russia and accepting it as its sole and only ally. Moreover, these reports present Ukraine as lacking financial capabilities to continue the war without US and EU funding. Former President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev stated that, Ukraine is “desperately jealous of Israel”, and the support the US has shown to Israel. This narrative pins Israel and Ukraine as competitors for support from the West.
Another parallel rhetoric between the Russia-Ukraine and the Israel-Gaza crisis is the rhetoric of anti-Semitism. Just as the de-Nazification narrative has played a key role in the justification of the war in Ukraine, Russia has also taken this opportunity to mobilise these disinformation points once again. However, with the recent events in Russia’s southern region of Dagestan, specifically the Makhachkala airport mob, the Kremlin’s anti-Semitic rhetoric has grown more complex – Russia both utilises anti-Semitic rhetoric against Ukraine and its leaders, as well as accuses Ukraine of anti-Semitism to garner support for the war in Ukraine.
Russia has claimed that Ukraine is a state controlled by ‘Neo-Nazis’, and as such, in ‘de-nazifying’ efforts, the so-called ‘Special Military Operation’ into Ukraine was launched in February 2022. At the same time, Russian leaders have made numerous anti-Semitic remarks against the Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. Most notably, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, stated that, “He [Zelensky] raises the question of what kind of Nazification they can have if he is a Jew. I could be wrong, but Hitler had Jewish ancestors. This means nothing”. Following this, President Putin apologised to the state of Israel via a telephone conversation with Israel’s Prime Minister Neftali Bennett.
Russia aims to play both sides of the anti-Semitic rhetoric, aiming to present themselves as both ‘de-nazifying’ Ukraine but also perpetrating anti-Semitic narratives against Ukraine’s leaders to discredit their capabilities. Russian state television continues to air similar statements, both questioning President Zelensky’s Jewish identity and perpetuating the idea that Zelensky himself, in spite of being Jewish, is a perpetrator against the Jewish people. Moreover, Russian state has recently released a propaganda filmed titled, The Witness, which is the first to depict the events of the Russo-Ukrainian War. In the film, Ukrainians are portrayed to be fascist and anti-Semitic – another strategy to justify Russia’s ideological grounds for the invasion of Ukraine to ‘de-Nazify’.
Moreover, the current Israel-Gaza crisis has created a new opportunity for the Russian media channels to further the narrative of Ukraine as a Nazi state. Following the attacks on southern Israel on October 7th, Russian news channels began disseminating reports of Hamas using weapons purchased from Ukraine to massacre Israeli civilians. This narrative is spread not only in an attempt to frame the Ukrainian state as against the Jewish people, but also to disrupt the arms supply to Ukraine.
The Makhachkala Airport incident has added another layer to the anti-Semitic rhetoric where under the guise of concern for violence against the local Jewish population. Russian leaders grow weary of protest and unrest, which could potentially turn into uprisings against the government, especially given Prigozhin’s failed coup earlier this year. An influential in Russia political figure and Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, has also condemned the mob in neighbouring Dagestan. Kadyrov has called the unrest in Dagestan “unsanctioned” by the government. As such, Russia may fear public outrage over the Israel-Gaza crisis escalations that may grow into wider anti-Putin protests.
Moreover, following the public unrest in Dagestan, a majority Muslim Republic, the rising threat of other public disturbances may be especially concerning to Putin and local authorities as the region has had a long standing history with jihadism. The Kremlin has long ignored this problem allowing hundreds of volunteers to join ISIS in efforts to counter insurgencies at home, which could alternatively fight towards the independence of Chechnya and Dagestan. Instead, by letting Islamic radicalisation flourish, the Kremlin has hoped to redirect focus away from separatism efforts toward radical Islamic doctrine. As the public in Dagestan and other nearby regions may be especially vulnerable to tales of enemies, the public’s discontent may eventually be channelled into resistance against the state as the enemy.
Russia’s response to the Israel-Gaza crisis and the anti-Semitic unrest in Dagestan are a continuation of its previous narrative strategy, and consistently uses the strategies of deflection and distraction. Russia benefits from the Israel-Gaza crisis taking over the headlines and moving away from condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The Kremlin attempts to manipulate narratives which best fit Putin’s agenda in Ukraine and its global push towards multipolarity. Russian disinformation campaigns have a history of targeting and infiltrating both right- and left-wing circles in the West in efforts to increase societal divisions and polarisation. Russia may attempt to ride the wave of rising pro-Palestine support throughout Europe to try and emphasise a common enemy of Palestine and Russia – the US. This may be of concern as Russian interference in European politics, especially within far-right parties becomes more prominent.
Another emerging threat is Russia’s active involvement in spreading disinformation online on the Israel-Gaza crisis for its Western audiences. Moreover, reports that Russian networks may be responsible for the spread of anti-Semitic symbols across Paris have emerged. Russia benefits from creating polarisation and political divisions in the West through such tactics. As such, Russia’s role in the shaping of public discourse on the Israel-Gaza crisis deserves attention, but simultaneously should not to be overestimated.
Putin’s public image both in the West and domestically aims to present him as a macho figure against American imperialism. Moreover, the ongoing conflict in Israel-Gaza further reveals the Kremlin disinformation tactics and overall agenda: through its involvement in the discussion around the Israel-Gaza crisis, Russia aims to push forward narratives for its Western audiences which justify the ‘Special Military Operation’, and undermine the West’s support for Ukraine, whilst villainising US hegemony, foreign policy, and presenting Putin as a leader in global politics for its domestic audience.