The Kremlin and local Russian leaders attempted Monday to blame “external interference” from Ukraine and the West for an antisemitic riot that caused the closure of an airport in the Muslim-majority region of Dagestan the previous day, after hundreds of people stormed the site trying to hunt down Israelis and Jews.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gathered his top advisers — including the defense minister and spy chiefs — to discuss what the Kremlin claimed was the “West’s attempts to use the events in the Middle East to split Russian society,” as Israel raised its alert for the Northern Caucasus region of Russia to 4, its highest level.
A joint statement from the National Security Council and the Foreign Ministry said that due to concerns over the incident Sunday and worries about repeat events, Israeli citizens should avoid those areas, and those already there should leave.
Ukraine’s envoy to Israel meanwhile accused Russian security forces of orchestrating Sunday’s antisemitic mob.
Russian police have said they arrested 60 people suspected of violently storming Makhachkala airport, seeking to attack Jewish passengers coming from Israel.
Hundreds of protesters, many of them chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest), broke through doors and barriers at the airport on Sunday, charging onto the runway.
The crowd of men tried to surround a plane that had landed from Tel Aviv, looking for Jews.
None of the passengers were hurt in the incident, according to Alex Bendersky, a Russian-speaking Israeli who covered the event on Carmel News, a Telegram channel that focuses on Russia and Ukraine.
According to an unconfirmed report on Carmel News, aboard the plane were Dagestani children who had undergone medical treatment in Israel.
The Israeli Ambassador to Moscow, Alexander Ben Zvi, told the RTVI news outlet that no passengers on the flight, which included Israelis, Russians and people with dual citizenship, were hurt.
In televised comments Monday night, Putin accused Ukraine and the West of instigating the riot.
“The events in Makhachkala last night were instigated through social networks, not least from Ukraine, by the hands of agents of Western special services,” Putin said.
Speaking to high-ranking members of his Security Council, Putin said there had been “attempts” to destabilize Russian society and accused the US of sowing instability in the Middle East.
“Who is organizing the deadly chaos and who benefits from it today, in my opinion, has already become obvious… It is the current ruling elites of the US and their satellites who are the main beneficiaries of world instability,” Putin said.
He added that Russian law enforcement needed to take “firm, timely and clear actions” in the wake of the riot in order to protect “inter-religious harmony.”
Putin’s meeting with his top security chiefs comes over 20 months after his Ukraine invasion, which has plunged Moscow into isolation.
Moscow regularly blames domestic unrest on external — usually Western — forces.
“Yesterday’s events at Makhachkala airport are, to a large extent, the result of external interference,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed in a briefing to reporters.
“Against the backdrop of TV footage showing the horrors of what is happening in the Gaza Strip — the deaths of people, children, old people — it is very easy for enemies to take advantage of and provoke the situation,” Peskov said.
Prominent figures in Dagestan have spoken in support of the Palestinians and against Israel since the murderous October 7 Hamas assault on Israel that killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, in the worst-ever terror attack in the country’s history, with at least another 243 people taken hostage.
Israel has hit back with relentless airstrikes against Hamas targets across the Strip and sent troops into northern Gaza.
Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry has said that more than 8,300 people have been killed in the war, many of them children. The figures issued by the terror group cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include its own members killed in Gaza and in Israel, and the victims of what Israel says are hundreds of errant Palestinian rockets aimed at Israel that have landed in the Strip since the war began.
Peskov did not provide further details Monday on the claims of “external interference,” though officials in Dagestan have pointed to Ukraine.
Video showing the crowd storming the runway at Makhachkala airport in #Dagestan looking for an incoming flight with “Israelis or Jews”.
This is genuinely terrifying. https://t.co/y9QEP9zaql pic.twitter.com/WiGKG44TwA
— Elad Simchayoff (@Elad_Si) October 29, 2023
Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, on Monday dismissed Russian claims of Ukrainian involvement, charging that authorities in Russia were behind the mob.
“They brought the security forces into the airport, but they were sitting aside and smoking cigarettes,” he told The Times of Israel. “They did nothing.”
Korniychuk said pogroms against Jews were used by Tsarist Russia to deflect anger over unemployment and poverty, and Moscow is using a similar tactic today.
“Now they have to explain to those younger people who is the one to be blamed in Russia because the economy is no good and there’s no jobs, especially in those regions in the Northern Caucasus as well as the rest of the republics,” he argued.
Korniychuk also said the riot was a predictable “next step” in the wake of Russia hosting Hamas leaders and failing to fully condemn the terror group’s attacks on October 7.
The ambassador said a change in Israel’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine war will be slow but “it will definitely take place because everybody understand who is the enemy and that Russia is basically on the same side with Iran and Hamas in this war.”
Korniychuk rejected Russian allegations that Kyiv was behind the incident in Dagestan’s main airport, saying “What else you can expect from the Russian propaganda?”
He added that Ukrainian intelligence has been working with Israeli intelligence from “day one,” immediately after the Hamas invasion.
The White House said Monday that the riot was reminiscent of “pogroms” from previous periods in history.
“Some people will compare it to the pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th century and I think that’s probably an apt description,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told a briefing.
He also rejected as “classic Russian rhetoric” allegations by Putin that Ukraine and the West instigated the riot, adding: “The West had nothing to do with this. This is just hate, bigotry and intimidation, pure and simple.”
The State Department earlier dismissed Russia’s claims as “absurd.”
“I’ve seen their comments about blaming Ukraine. That is absurd,” US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters Monday.
“We call on Russian authorities to publicly condemn these violent protests, to hold anyone involved accountable and to ensure the safety of Israelis and Jews in Russia,” he said.
Sunday’s antisemitic riot came four days after Putin gathered religious leaders, saying “inter-religious agreement is the basis of Russian statehood.”
A day after the riot, the airport said it had “significant damage” but resumed flights on Monday afternoon. Russia had initially said the airport would be closed for six days.
Flights to and from Tel Aviv will be temporarily redirected to other Russian cities, Russia’s federal aviation agency said.
Five people were still in hospital on Monday, Dagestan’s health ministry said, including four police officers injured while trying to restore order.
Local authorities said they had identified more than 150 people who took part in the riot.
The mob descended on the airport tarmac after a flight landed from Ben Gurion Airport.
Flight tracking website Flightradar24 indicated that a Red Wings flight out of Tel Aviv had landed at Makhachkala at 7:00 p.m. (1600 GMT) on Sunday.
It had reportedly been due to take off again for Moscow afterward.
The governor of Dagestan, Sergei Melikov, vowed punishment for those responsible for the airport storming and called for his people not to succumb to “provocations” over events in Israel and Gaza.
“All Dagestanis empathize with the suffering of victims by the actions of unrighteous people and politicians and pray for peace in Palestine,” he said. “But what happened at our airport is outrageous and should receive the appropriate assessment from law enforcement.”
Melikov pointed the finger at Ukraine.
According to independent reports, Dagestan has sent proportionately more men to fight in Ukraine than many ethnic Russian regions.
Melikov claimed that “initiators of this action are our enemies who organized it from Ukrainian territory.”
He called the riot a “stab in the back” of Dagestani soldiers fighting in Ukraine.
Melikov said the riots were instigated by posts on the social media platform Telegram from Utro Dagestan, run by “traitors” working from Ukraine.
Utro Dagestan — a Telegram channel with some 60,000 followers — had shared a post urging a mass gathering at the airport to prevent the arrival of “undesirable” passengers on the Red Wings flight.
The RIA Novosti news agency reported on Sunday that a Jewish center in another North Caucasus republic — Kabardino-Balkaria — had been set on fire in the city of Nalchik.
The airport violence prompted Israel to call on Russia to protect its citizens, while the United States condemned the “antisemitic protests.”