Russian officials say extra security measures now in place at Makhachkala airport in Dagestan
When Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his security council and law enforcement leaders at an emergency meeting on Monday, he didn't condemn the angry mob that surrounded an airport in southern Russia a day earlier in order to "catch" Jewish passengers coming from Tel Aviv.
Instead, he escalated his criticism of Israel and its military operation in Gaza, calling the thousands of civilian deaths there "unjustified," and blamed Ukraine and agents from Western security agencies for using social networks to whip up the chaos at the airport.
"We should not and do not have the right … to be guided by emotions," Putin said during a televised address at the meeting, which was the only part of the gathering made public. "We must clearly understand who is really behind the tragedy of the peoples of the Middle East and other regions of the world."
Mob storms Russian airport looking for Israeli air passengers
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Featured VideoHundreds of people stormed into the main airport and onto the airfield in Russia's predominantly Muslim Dagestan region, seeking passengers arriving on a flight from Israel.
While Putin's criticism of the West is predictable, experts say the storming of the airport shows that Russia has been caught off-guard by growing tensions in Dagestan, a predominantly Muslim republic in the North Caucasus.
The government has vowed an investigation into the antisemitic protests. But the events have undoubtedly further damaged Russia's relationship with Israel, which has already been strained by the Kremlin's decision to host a delegation last week from the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which launched an attack on Israel on Oct. 7 that killed about 1,400 people.
"Russia is trying to play a peacemaking role in the Middle East," said Anna Matveeva, a visiting research fellow at the Russia Institute at King's College London.
But "the ugly events domestically … do not make it look good, especially in the eyes of Israel."
Signs of unrest
An angry crowd descended on Makhachkala airport on Sunday evening after a Telegram channel called Morning Dagestan posted a message calling on Dagestanis to meet the "uninvited guests" arriving on a flight from Tel Aviv.
It has been reported that the channel, which was later banned by Telegram, did not use the word "Jew" but referred to the plane's passengers as being "unclean."
On mobile phone videos posted to social media, hundreds of people can be seen violently bursting into the terminal, with some shouting "Allahu Akbar," which means "God is greatest." A few in the group were carrying Palestinian flags.
The crowd surrounded the plane and it took hours for police to regain control of the situation. By the end, 20 people were injured and dozens were arrested.
In light of the incident, Israeli officials called on Russia to protect its citizens and all Jews. Israel also raised its travel warning to the North Caucasus region to its highest level.
Matveeva believes swift punishment will follow, because the Kremlin will want to illustrate that it is in control.
"The authorities have been caught pretty unprepared," she said, even though there were signs of growing tension in the region.
A day before the airport event, social media videos showed a crowd surrounding a hotel in the Dagestani city of Khasavyurt, where they believed some Israelis were staying.
Over the weekend, Matveeva says there were also reports of an attack on a Jewish cultural centre that was under construction in the southern Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. She says the building was burned and some "pretty nasty" graffiti was left behind.
Russian attitudes toward Middle East
While Putin didn't directly condemn what happened at the airport, the governor of Dagestan, Sergei Melikov, called it a gross violation of the law on one of his social media accounts.
Russia's state news agency, RIA, reported that Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the neighbouring republic of Chechnya, vowed on Tuesday that anyone who attends a riot will be imprisoned or killed.
"Fire three warning shots in the air," Kadyrov was quoted as telling Russian security officials, "and after that, if the person does not obey the law, make the fourth shot in the forehead."
The Kremlin says the riot at the airport is being analyzed to try and prevent another from happening.
Denis Volkov, director of the Moscow-based independent polling organization Levada Center, says the event might not be a "one-off," because emotions are running high and there has been an increase in sympathy among Russia's population for Palestinians.
In a poll conducted over a week-long period in October, 1,600 people across Russia were asked about their attitudes toward the conflict in the Middle East. While 66 per cent said they don't favour one side over the other, 21 per cent said they supported the Palestinians — an 11 per cent increase from a similar poll conducted in 2007.
In the recent poll, six per cent said they supported Israel, while seven per cent said it was difficult to answer.
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Volkov, who spoke to CBC News by Zoom, said the support was strongest among respondents of the Muslim faith. But he believes Russian attitudes toward Israel may also have hardened because of Russia's deepening rift with the U.S., a staunch supporter of Israel.
Public attitudes may also be influenced by Putin and his government, which Volkov says seems to be "more sympathetic toward Palestinians."
Although he called Hamas's Oct. 7 assault on Israel a "terrorist attack," Putin said Israel was taking "revenge" on the entire Gaza population.
In addition to welcoming a delegation from Hamas, Russia has a deepening relationship with the Islamic group's longtime backer, Iran.
As for the violent mob in Dagestan, Volkov says the republic has a history of unrest. In 1999, Russia fought a month-long war against Chechen Islamist rebels there and an armed insurgency throughout the North Caucasus between 2007 and 2017.
There were protests in Dagestan last year after Russia announced a partial military mobilization for the war against Ukraine.
Volkov says Dagestan is one of the most economically depressed areas of Russia, where the average income is low and unemployment is high.
"I think the deep Palestinian sympathies, together with internal frustrations — it was the swell for the unrest [and] antisemitic mass meetings."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Briar Stewart is CBC's Russia correspondent, currently based in London. During her nearly two decades with CBC, she has reported across Canada and internationally. She can be reached at email@example.com or on X @briarstewart
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