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The Week In Russia: Makhachkala, Moscow, And The Middle East 

Law enforcement officers maintain a heavy presence at the airport in Makhachkala, Daghestan, on October 31, days after a mob of some 1,000 people shouting anti-Semitic slogans stormed the facility looking to block entry to "refugees from Israel."
Law enforcement officers maintain a heavy presence at the airport in Makhachkala, Daghestan, on October 31, days after a mob of some 1,000 people shouting anti-Semitic slogans stormed the facility looking to block entry to "refugees from Israel."

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

Moscow’s geopolitical juggling act in the Middle East tilts, and an anti-Semitic riot at an airport in the North Caucasus underscores the ramifications for Russia.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Back To Beslan

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, Rule No. 1 in the blame game seems to be this: Never stop playing.

Over more than 20 years of violent events ranging from militant attacks in the North Caucasus, Moscow, and other areas in Russia to his own decision to launch a massive invasion of Ukraine last year, Putin has been pointing the finger at external forces, most often at the United States and the rest of the West.

This goes back at least as far as 2004, when attackers seized a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, and more than 330 pupils, parents, and staff were killed in a three-day ordeal that ended with a badly botched bid by state security forces to resolve the hostage crisis.

Putin responded by suggesting that the blame lay abroad, with outsiders aiming to break up Russia and come away with a piece of the pie -- a “tasty morsel.” In terms of a response, though, he turned inside, embarking on what critics say is a still-continuing campaign to dominate politics, control cash flows, and suppress dissent.

The Underlying Narrative

Eighteen years later, Putin cast the full-scale invasion of Ukraine as a forced move, a necessary measure to push back against what he again described as external forces bent on restraining or destroying Russia -- a narrative he has turned to time and again. “We have nowhere further to retreat,” he said in December 2021, suggesting that Russia was under back-against-the-wall pressure when it was not: There was no sign of a threat to Russian territory, and it was his own forces that were already occupying part of Ukraine and would press further two months later in a bloody effort -- also still continuing -- to subjugate a sovereign nation.

In recent weeks, Putin seems to have been playing the blame game avidly, pointing the finger at the West several times when responding to momentous developments at home and abroad.

When gunmen from Hamas -- designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and EU -- invaded Israel on October 7, Putin said nothing about it in public for days, and when he did speak he found a familiar culprit: the United States. Washington had failed to produce a two-state solution to the long-standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, he said, and he asserted without evidence that the "ruling elites of the U.S." and its "satellites" stood behind the killing of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip – and were also to blame for current and past wars in Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Putin also blamed the West for a violent incident three weeks later that took place inside Russia but was closely related to the Israel-Hamas war and to his government’s response to it: An anti-Semitic October 29 attack on the main airport in Daghestan, a predominantly Muslim region in the North Caucasus, by a violent mob looking for Jews following reports of the arrival of a flight from Israel.

'The Narrative Works'

In the context of “a zero-sum geopolitical confrontation with the United States,” the Kremlin’s motives for blaming Washington for the Hamas attack and the war that has ensued are simple -- and are bound to succeed at least to some extent, Bloomberg opinion columnist Marc Champion suggested in an October 17 article.

“[J]ust as Putin immediately laid the blame for Hamas’s horrific attack on Israeli civilians at the door of the U.S., China has avoided any public condemnation of Hamas, while criticizing Israel for its collective punishment of Palestinians in response,” Champion wrote.

“By courting the Muslim world in this way,” Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping “are doubling down on their success in persuading the so-called Global South that the problem isn’t Russian aggression in Ukraine or Hamas’ grotesque terrorist acts in Israel, but rather the continued colonialism of the United States and Europe,” Champion wrote.

“Never mind Russian suppression of Muslim Tatars in occupied Crimea or Chinese internment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province,” he added. “The narrative works because the Palestinian injustice, with its colonial overtones and deep history in centuries of struggle over control of the Holy Land, can enrage the Arab Street like no other.”

'Division And Diversion'

In an October 22 article in The Independent, author and analyst Mark Galeotti wrote that “the Kremlin is doing what it can to use [the Israel-Hamas war] as an opportunity for its usual tactics of division and diversion.

“Its disinformation outlets are doing what they can to fragment Western public opinion, pushing extreme narratives from both sides, while in the Global South, they are shamelessly peddling the notion that this is simply another expression of Western neo-colonialism.”

“This all sounds win-win for the Russians, especially if Israel gets sucked into a lengthy and bloody war in Gaza, which will not only distract Western opinion, but also divert resources. At a time of ammunition scarcity, every pallet of artillery shells heading to Israel is not bound for Ukraine,” he wrote.

That’s a particular concern for Kyiv at a time when the prospects for additional U.S. aid to Ukraine for its defense against the Russian invasion are clouded by debate and disagreement in Congress and polls indicate support among Americans is slipping.

But there’s bad news for Putin, too, at least potentially: The Israel-Hamas war and the crisis it has engendered threaten to disrupt Moscow’s geopolitical juggling act in the Middle East, creating problems for Russia in the region and undermining its efforts to increase its influence.

“While Putin tried to combine conciliatory language towards both Israel and the Palestinians with a characteristic attempt to blame the Americans, this was not a line he could hold for long,” Galeotti wrote. “He cannot afford to alienate Iran or Saudi Arabia, and so his relationship with Israel is deteriorating quickly.”

“Above all, what is clear is how little real muscle Putin has in such circumstances. He has no credible power projection options (America is sending one of its carrier battle groups – Russia’s only aircraft carrier is still being refurbished), no spare weapons to send, no real political leverage,” he added.

Bitter Harvest?

At home, meanwhile, the attack on the Makhachkala airport in Daghestan -- a mob of rioters shouting epithets, pounding on planes and cars, and demanding identity documents as they searched for Jews said to have arrived on a flight from Israel -- quickly pointed up the risks and repercussions of the Russian state’s response to the Israel-Hamas war.

“The Russian state has long tried to keep extremism in the predominantly Muslim N[orth] Caucasus in check, often using violent means [and] suppression,” Hanna Notte, a Berlin-based analyst with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on October 30.

But now, Moscow’s grip on the North Caucasus -- the site of two devastating separatist wars since the Soviet collapse, including the conflict that helped vault Putin to power in 1999 -- suddenly seems weaker than it has in years.

Analysts say that’s in part because of the tilt in Moscow’s policy toward the Middle East, or at least in its messaging about it at home and abroad -- since the Hamas invasion of Israel.

“Russia came down hard on the Palestinian side” in the last two weeks, Notte wrote: Putin’s government did not censure Hamas, and it hosted a high-level delegation from the militant group last week. At the United Nations, it proposed a resolution that called for a cease-fire in the Israel-Gaza war and condemned "all violence and hostilities directed against civilians and all acts of terrorism," but did not mention Hamas.

At the same time, Notte added, a “media campaign against ‘unpatriotic’ Jews [was] fueling anti-Semitic sentiments in Russia.”

“Putin is now reaping what he sowed,” she wrote.

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site, or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country and in its war against Ukraine, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts.

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