Russian Connections to Israel-Gaza Protests

May 14, 2024
Matus Trubac  —  Research Intern

During the past decade and a half, extremist non-state actors in Russia have become a central element of the violent transnational right-wing extremist milieu. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and particularly its re-invasion of the country in 2022 have afforded these actors more opportunities to operate and increase their influence. This blog is the sixteenth in a series in which CEP highlights some of the key actors, and analyzes their extremist ideology, modus operandi, and transnational role.

Russian extremist groups so far covered in this series do not appear to have frequently addressed the Israel-Hamas conflict or related protests in online platforms in 2024. Neither Other Russia nor its paramilitary wing, the Interbrigades, make any mention of it on their websites and Telegram channels. Similarly, Rusich, the Night Wolves, the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), and the Wagner Group do not dedicate significant coverage to the conflict. Instead, since the Hamas-led attack on Israel in October 2023, they have devoted an overwhelming amount of their online content to the war in Ukraine. 

However, there appear to be a few exceptions. For example, RIM has proposed that Russia deport its Jewish, Uzbek, and Tajik population to Israel and Gaza to fight for both sides in the conflict. According to some Russian nationalists, including Igor Girkin, the war of Hamas against Israel was started by the “American global capitalist elite” that, according to Girkin, will benefit from instability in the region. In these anti-American sentiments, we may find overlap between Russian extremist nationalists and official Kremlin discourse, which has been critical of the West for decades. While Russian non-state actors have spread anti-Western propaganda on the Kremlin’s behalf, as was the case with the formerly Yevgeny Prigozhin-controlled Internet Research Agency, there are currently no indications that fringe extremist groups such as RIM or the Angry Patriots are doing the same.

Firstly, groups like Other Russia, RIM, and Rusich have been critical of the Russian government in the past and, as such, are not automatically poised to spread the Kremlin’s propaganda. Secondly, they have paramilitary units active in Ukraine and therefore focus on that conflict, especially given their constant efforts to raise funds for equipment. These groups, as non-state actors, do not feel the same need as the Kremlin to use Hamas’s war against Israel to deflect from Ukraine. Finally, virtually all of the Russian extremist groups covered by previous blog entries have expressed both antisemitic sentiments as well as a strong animosity toward Russia’s Muslim population, which may help explain why they aren’t publicly taking sides for or against Hamas. 

Russia’s worsening relationship with Israel may be partly rooted in the Kremlin’s desire to placate its Muslim population, in order to avoid a religious or inter-ethnic conflict, especially given Russia’s experience with the Chechen Jihad. On October 29, 2023, a large mob occupied the Makhachkala Airport in the Republic of Dagestan, after multiple Dagestani Telegram channels spread a rumor claiming that Israeli refugees were going to land at the airport. The mob chanted antisemitic slogans such as, ‘Death to the Jews.’ Similar to its response to the March 2024 Crocus City Hall attack, the Kremlin blamed the incident on Western powers and Ukraine, claiming it was an attempt to destabilize Russia. Putin further tried to deflect from the Makhachkala airport incident by linking it to the war in Gaza, arguing that by fighting in Ukraine, Russia is fighting the West and thus those supporting Israel. 

Russia’s balancing act on Hamas appears to be slowly unraveling as Russia slowly loses influence in the region. Between October 7, 2023, and January 31, 2024, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has only engaged in a single phone conversation with Putin, underscoring Moscow's perceived insignificance as a player in the conflict. Instead, Putin himself has made several blatantly antisemitic comments and on October 26, 2023, he welcomed a Hamas delegation to Moscow. Geopolitically, Russia’s balancing act in the Middle East appears unstable. Nevertheless, the Kremlin attempts a balanced strategy when it comes to capitalizing on the ongoing university campus protests to stoke tensions within the United States.

According to the New York Times, Russian, Chinese, and Iranian state media have produced more than 400 articles on the student protests in the U.S., frequently pushing narratives brimming with propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation. These narratives do not appear to be centrally coordinated, nor do they appear to promote a specific agenda. Rather, their central goal seems to further exacerbate existing divisions and increase tensions. 

Clusters of websites posing as American news, but in fact created by Russia to spread propaganda, have diversified their content away from the war in Ukraine and began covering domestic U.S. politics. These websites are the result of Russia’s Doppelgänger operation, active since May 2022, which spreads disinformation by masquerading as non-Russian sources. In response to the Senate’s passage of aid to Israel and Ukraine, the Russian operation responded with content aiming to undermine the strength of Western alliances and America’s commitment to its partners, urging Israel to seek closer ties with Russia and China. Another post argued that any U.S. criticism of Israel is unacceptable and that Israel should distance itself from America.

According to an analyst from the cybersecurity company Recorded Future, Russia’s online propaganda campaign is simply designed to inflame tensions on both sides of the protest. On the one hand, Kremlin-backed online propaganda blames the Biden administration for pursuing a relationship with what a so-called “controversial ally” while neglecting domestic sentiments. On the other hand, this Russian-directed online propaganda pushes narratives that accuse the U.S. government of deploying double standards in how campus protestors are treated compared to the Capitol rioters on January 6, 2021. There is also significant coverage in government-dominated Russian media on how pro-Palestinian protesters received months of training and instruction from experienced agitators. More broadly, Russian-language news has accused Western governments and universities of enabling genocide.

Russia’s online reaction to the protests at various universities is part and parcel of its long-running cyber campaign of inciting unrest in the U.S. and other Western countries. Russian propaganda campaigns, including through the Internet Research Agency, have been known to hijack both right-wing and left-wing extremist online milieus to spread discord. However, the goal is ultimately the same: destabilize its opponents and generate more support for Russia. While Russia appears to be abandoning its balanced approach toward geopolitics in the Middle East, it continues to play both sides by disseminating online propaganda, mis- and disinformation. 

Notably, Russia’s support of protesters on either side appears entirely online-driven. So far, there are no indications that Russian authorities or government agencies have provided any material or organizational support to protesters. There is also currently little reason to suspect that non-state extremist groups in Russia would provide material support due to their focus on the ongoing war in Ukraine and their equally antisemitic and Islamophobic ideological views. Given the currently available information, it seems clear that the potentially more significant security risk is the potential links between protesters and alleged members of pro-Palestinian organizations designated as terrorist by the EU and the U.S. These potential links require careful examination and continuous monitoring to ensure that terrorist groups do not exploit these protests to conduct operations on American soil.

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