An uprising in southern Russia, where rioters stormed an airport tarmac apparently searching for Jewish passengers on a flight from Israel, has shocked Jews in Russia and beyond, drawn condemnation from the Israeli government and prompted the Kremlin to call an unscheduled meeting to address the clashes.
Hundreds of young men stormed the main airport in the predominantly Muslim republic of Dagestan on Sunday night, searching for a commercial flight from Tel Aviv. Videos and some images on social media showed some of the rioters holding Palestinian flags and carrying signs opposing the war in Gaza, possibly spurred on by a Telegram messaging channel that urged them to “catch” the passengers of the incoming flight from Israel.
The Israeli government, in a statement, said Monday that it expected the Russian authorities to protect all Israeli citizens and Jews and to act firmly against the rioters, describing the episode as “wild incitement directed at Jews and Israelis.”
At least 20 people were injured in the riot, and dozens were arrested. The government in the predominantly Muslim republic said Monday that the outburst had been calmed and vowed to prevent further clashes. Russian aviation authorities said that the airport, in Makhachkala, the republic’s capital, would reopen on Tuesday.
The uprising highlighted the challenges that the Kremlin faces in managing the various parts of its vast multiethnic and multireligious country. Ethnic tensions in the North Caucasus are a major risk factor for overall Russian stability, given the region’s recent history of war, and incidents of terrorism in Chechnya and Dagestan.
It also underscored how the Kremlin’s decision to distance itself from Israel and from the Israeli military campaign against Hamas in Gaza can cause instability at home. Russia has around 20 million Muslims, including at least two million in Moscow, and this population is growing at a fast rate.
In recent days President Vladimir V. Putin has taken steps suggesting increased concern that the Israeli-Hamas war could lead to ethnic strife in Russia.
He gathered faith leaders last week at the Kremlin to discuss it, saying “interethnic and interfaith accord is the foundation of the Russian state.” And representatives of Hamas were in Moscow last week, prompting Israel to summon the Russian ambassador in Tel Aviv to complain.
The Russians on Monday blamed outsiders for instigating the turmoil. Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, accused “outside interference” for causing the riots but cited no evidence.
Speaking on Monday at an meeting on the crisis in Dagestan, Mr. Putin blamed Western special services for the uprising. “The events in Makhachkala yesterday night were instigated including via social networks not least from the Ukrainian territory,” he said, repeating his assertions that the United States was responsible for the crisis in Israel.
The Russian leader has listed interethnic and interreligious accord in Russia as a policy priority. Anti-Israel and antisemitic protests in the North Caucasus region that includes Dagestan where Mr. Putin fought his first war as Russian leader, could jeopardize that at a time when the Kremlin is also waging a long and bloody war in Ukraine.
Any instability in Russia is good for Ukraine, which since 2014 has recruited disgruntled Muslims including Chechens. Trying to destabilize the Muslim minorities is a long-running approach to fighting Russia, used by the Germans in World War II and, in the Russian view, by the West in the 1980s during Russia’s war in Afghanistan.
The Dagestan government blamed pro-Ukrainian conspirators for the clashes at the airport, saying that they had inflamed the public to fuel unrest in Russia.
Videos and images shared on social media showed a chaotic scene at the airport in Makhachkala. In one video verified by The New York Times, a group of dozens of men, some carrying Palestinian flags, swarms a parked airplane from the carrier Red Wings, apparently after the passengers had disembarked. “There are no passengers here anymore,” a man in a yellow safety vest tells the rioters, pointing at the plane. He adds, “I am Muslim.”
In another video verified by The Times, filmed from inside an airplane on the tarmac, a crew member can be heard announcing: “Please stay seated, and don’t try to open the plane’s door. There is an angry mob outside.”
Some of the protests were supported by a Telegram channel that discussed plans to “catch” the passengers of the flight, along with screenshots of the flight schedule. Pavel Durov, the Russian entrepreneur who owns Telegram, said he would block the channel.
The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, the leading organization in the country that unites Jews, said in a statement on Monday that local governments in the Caucasus “were not ready for such incidents and allowed for a mass violation of the law.”
“But it is hard to call this incompetence — the heads of republics likely could not imagine that multinational Caucasus will be gripped by such unrest,” said the head of the organization, Rabbi Aleksandr Boroda.
The regional police said in a statement that they had identified 150 people as having actively taken part in the riot and that 83 had been arrested. Nine police officers were injured in the clashes, two of whom were hospitalized, according to the statement.
Dagestan’s health ministry said that 20 people in total had been injured, including police officers and civilians. Four of them were still receiving treatment in a hospital on Monday, including three police officers and one civilian, the ministry said.
The police said that local investigators had opened a criminal investigation and vowed that everyone who had participated would be held responsible.
Sergei Melikov, the head of Dagestan, condemned the rioters, saying, “There was no honor in swearing at strangers, reaching into their pockets and trying to check their passport,” referring to reports that some of those who had stormed the airport had asked bystanders there to prove their nationality.
There were also reports of anti-Israel protests across the North Caucasus, a combustible region in the Russian south. On Saturday, dozens of people gathered in front of a hotel in the town of Khasavyurt, in Dagestan, after reports on social media claimed that it was “full of Jews.” About 200 people also gathered in the central square of Cherkessk, capital of the Karachay-Cherkessia republic, to protest the potential arrival of Israeli refugees, local news media reported.
Russia has gone to extraordinary lengths to crack down on protests over its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which it falsely claimed was being fought to rid the country of “Nazis.”
Aleksandr Verkhovsky, an analyst of interethnic relations and xenophobia at the Sova Center in Moscow, said the war in Ukraine had “radicalized the Russian society.” That radicalization can explain how genuine protest in support of civilians in Gaza could turn into an antisemitic mob, he said.
“People become more aggressive, being infected by the aggressive propaganda,” Mr. Verkhovsky said.
Ukrainian officials were quick to seize on the events in Russia as reflecting a deeper culture of hatred that the Kremlin had fomented for years.
“For Russian propaganda talking heads on official television, hate rhetoric is routine,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said in a statement, noting the “appalling videos” coming out of Dagestan. “Hatred is what drives aggression and terror. We must all work together to oppose hatred.”
Andrew E. Kramer and Marc Santora contributed from Kyiv, Ukraine. Isabel Kershner and Aric Toler also contributed reporting.