Unraveling the Airport Riots in Dagestan: Separating Fact from Propaganda

Written by Matt Wickham, Analyst & Volodymyr Solovian, Senior Analyst HWAG/UCMC

The riot at Daghestan’s airport on October 29, triggered by the arrival of a plane from Israel, brought to light incidents of anti-Semitism in Russia’s Dagestan region. Video footage showed young Muslim men storming the airport in an attempt to find Jews, drawing parallels to recent acts of terror by Hamas, albeit without the bloodshed. In response to this incident, Russian propaganda made efforts to shift the narrative and divert attention from the exposure of anti-Semitism in its federation. 

Uncovering Anti-Semitism in Dagestan

This unrest in Dagestan raises questions about whether these events truly represent the views of the region’s population, a predominantly Muslim region with over 80% practicing Islam. If this incident indeed reflects anti-Semitic sentiments in the region, it challenges the Russian government’s long-standing narrative of fighting against manifestations of neonazism.

Russia has framed its war in Ukraine as a ‘denazification’ campaign, justifying its actions by portraying Ukraine and its leadership as Nazi opponents. The myth of the Second World War is the state religion of Putin’s Russia, the sacred foundation of which is the memory of millions of victims. Thus, this emotional appeal has resonated with the Russian people. However, the incident at the airport, where the intent seemed to be harming Jews, raises questions about the credibility of Russia’s anti-Nazi stance. To redirect blame, the official Russian stance has been to attribute the attack to Western intelligence agencies and Ukraine.

Finger Pointing and Accusation of Western Involvement

After a night of narrative crafting, Zakharova, the Kremlin’s chief state propagandist, addressed the foreign press the next day, accusing Ukraine and President Zelensky. She claimed that the riots were “inspired by those who use extreme and terroristic methods to disrupt Russia’s internal politics,” referring to Kyiv as the ‘saboteur.’ Zakharova’s sole basis for implicating Ukraine hinged on the fact Zelensky swiftly turned to social media to criticize the Russian leadership, in which he accused the Kremlin of double standards. From Zakharova’s distorted worldview, this is indisputable evidence that Ukraine’s SBU orchestrated the unrest because of the apparent “coordinated character” of the Ukrainian President’s rapid response. She theatrically marvels at the idea that such events could occur in Russia, where she says unity is a fundamental pillar of its development. However, Zelensky’s quick reaction was driven by the need to challenge Russia’s rhetoric used to justify its war. 

Meanwhile, Gurulyov, a member of the Russian State Duma, and Kiselev, a military officer of the so-called People’s Republic of Luhansk, were convinced of a different perpetrator, alleging that the instigator was the USA, specifically the CIA and the FBI, with the sole intent to create chaos. It’s worth noting that Kiselev’s accusation of FBI involvement demonstrates his, a Russian official, obliviousness to the situation and pure chicanery since the FBI’s jurisdiction is limited to the United States.

This rhetoric gains significance in the context of Russia’s portrayal as a peacemaker in the Middle East, a role it has pursued through proxy wars for decades. Despite alliances with the Iranian regime and Hamas, the realization that anti-Semitism may spread throughout Federal subjects of Russia may challenge the country’s ostensibly neutral stance and affect its foreign policy objectives. 

Additionally, Klyuchenkov advances the notion that Western powers are to blame, claiming Russia provided Israel with proof of Kyiv’s involvement in the unrest, alleging that Israeli President Herzog ‘confirms the assumption’. However, in the interview with Die Welt, cited by Marden, there’s no confirmation of Herzog’s endorsement of this rhetoric; that it was Kyiv (or Western intelligence), instead only criticism of the event as ‘pure anti-Semitism and of course controlled,’ yet gave no confirmation by whom. Moreover, after the Kremlin’s alignment with Hamas, it is unlikely that Israeli authorities would believe Russia’s rhetoric. 

Therefore, to control the narrative, Zakharova asserted that a ‘united Russia’ will continue working toward a stabilizing role in the Middle East, seeking mutually beneficial relations with all states in the region.

The Role of Social Media. Time to Double Down on Freedom of Speech?

Putin addressed the riots, recognizing the potential damage to Russia’s international reputation. Unsurprisingly, he blamed the root cause on Russia’s (so far) relatively unrestricted social media landscape. He too claimed that Russia has intelligence proving that the riots were inspired and coordinated by various social media platforms, Ukrainian actors, and Western intelligence agencies. 

Mikheyev, a Russian propagandist, echoed these concerns, emphasizing the ‘dangers’ of social media and suggesting that the Russian authorities consider further control over what little free speech remains in the country. Furthermore, Zhuravlev, Russian member of the state duma, adds to the choir, telling how it was coordinated by telegram channels from Kyiv, “including, probably, those associated with the SBU.” This coordinated response by propagandists continued, although Telegram’s owner, Pavlo Durnov, stated that the platform was actively banning channels that disseminated information inciting anti-Semitic riots. 

Putin’s speech also pushed the ongoing rhetoric of Russia’s fight against Nazism. “We know that Bandera and other Hitler associates have been placed on a pedestal of honor. We see how Ukraine’s leadership applauds the Nazis of WWII and personally participates in these crimes,” he said, accusing the West of attempting to incite pogroms in Russia. In response, John Kirby, the US National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, dismissed these claims as classic Russian rhetoric, emphasizing that when internal problems arise in Russia, the go-to strategy is to shift blame onto others. 

To summarize:

  • Russia is attempting to impose the image of a “neo-Nazi regime” on Ukraine while anti-Semitism flourishes in its regions. The young radicals from Dagestan have put the final nail in the coffin of the Russian narrative about Moscow’s unyielding fight against fascism and xenophobia. 
  • The events in Makhachkala demolish the myth of state propaganda about Russians’ multinational unity. This is evidence of an increase in ethnic conflicts and competition among local elites. For years, the Kremlin has remained silent on the issue, but the war in Ukraine has served as a catalyst for internal Russian sociopolitical processes that will destabilize the Putin regime in the near future. 
  • Putin’s justifications appear extremely unconvincing and humiliating to Russian patriots. It turns out that Ukrainian special forces can organize the airport seizure using Russian social media. The Kremlin’s public reaction has become yet another irritant for Russia’s radical nationalists, increasing their dissatisfaction with Putin and the government’s security forces.