Pro-Russian protests and rising anti-Russian sentiment in European cities will force leaders to balance public anger at Russia’s invasion with the need to protect civil liberties and prevent politically and ethnically motivated violence. Erin Drake explores the challenges facing European governments that could escalate societal tensions and drive unrest in the coming months.
Most European populations have strongly supported Ukraine in the ongoing war. Pro-Ukraine protests regularly sweep city centres, with thousands in attendance denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In this climate, pro-Russian activists are also becoming increasingly vocal. Pro-Russia rallies have occurred in various cities, including Sofia, Athens, Budapest, Helsinki, Hanover, Frankfurt, and Belgrade. Some cheer Russia’s invasion, donning the characteristic ‘Z’ that signifies support for the “special military operation.” Others comprise Russian or Russia-affiliated individuals denouncing alleged victimisation and harassment amid reports of rising Russophobia. Along with other grievances like escalating inflation and energy supply disruptions placing strain on households and businesses, tensions over the war could act as a catalyst for growing unrest in Europe.
OUTRAGE OVER PRO-RUSSIAN SENTIMENT
Since the invasion of Ukraine, at least 18 pro-Russian protests have been reported in Europe, with three in Bulgaria, and eight in Germany, home to a large Russian speaking population and around 235,000 Russian citizens. Many protests have been peaceful, but some have ended in clashes between rival demonstrators. In April, 300 Russian and Greek nationals staged a motorcade in Athens in solidarity with Russia, which devolved into clashes with a group of 150 pro-Ukraine demonstrators in Syntagma Square. At least two people were injured, two cars were damaged, and later, two Georgian nationals were arrested. In early-May, Polish, Ukrainian and Belarusian activists protested at a commemorative event organised by the Russian embassy in Warsaw, with protesters occupying the memorial venue and some pouring red liquid on the Russian ambassador. Several scuffles were reported between pro- and anti-Russian activists. At a similar event in Bulgaria, pro-Russian protesters clashed with a group of critics gathered in front of the Soviet Army monument in Sofia, over the pro-Ukraine group’s placard depicting a crossed-out hammer and sickle.
Some demonstrations held by Russian activists have highlighted growing intolerance of expressing support for Russia, or simply of being or speaking Russian. In Germany, particularly, protests have been held to demand an end to discrimination against those of Russian nationality or descent. In April, around 600 people protested in Frankfurt’s central business district while a protest convoy of around 350 cars drove through Hanover. Some have viewed these rallies as tacitly supporting Russia’s invasion, and have levelled sharp criticism against authorities for allowing the events to proceed, further stoking public ire among both groups.
Meanwhile, there have been incidents of harassment and violence against Ukrainian nationals and sympathisers; German police have recorded at least 180 offenses categorised as ‘anti-Ukrainian,’ while on 9 May, around 50 pro-Russian demonstrators in Bilbao, Spain, chased and harassed a woman who approached the rally carrying a Ukrainian flag, forcing her to take refuge in a nearby building while protesters attempting to access the building clashed with security guards.
GROWING TENSIONS AND THE THREAT OF VIOLENCE
For Russian citizens and businesses, the security landscape has become more hostile; there have been cases of vandalism targeting small-scale commercial operations, like local Russian-owned diners and supermarkets, while in Germany, police have recorded 383 offenses motivated by anti-Russian sentiment since the invasion began. Growing (or at least more publicly-expressed) Russophobia is also apparent in social media posts, where many Europe-based Russian users have reported harassment and threats in response to the invasion. Such acts, together with some social media platforms’ willingness to alter their usually strict content policies to allow for posts calling for violence against Russian invaders (though not Russian people specifically), carries the potential to encourage and spread anti-Russian hate speech which can lead to associated physical violence. Some have also argued that moves by governments and other organisations to exclude Russian athletes, musicians and other artists from competitions, concerts and events are further normalising such sentiment, along with a tendency to conflate Russian nationals with the Putin regime and its policies.
"Tensions over the war could act as a catalyst for growing unrest in Europe."
With anti-Russian sentiment on the rise, incidents of harassment towards Russian citizens or vandalism of Russian-owned companies could become more frequent. Such sentiment could encourage attacks on larger commercial entities owned or operated by Russian nationals, or perceived to be biased or neutral in the conflict. Lists of companies choosing to continue operations in Russia or with prominent Russian clients have been widely-publicised and it is possible that, as the war continues, activists could target physical offices and personnel based in Europe. There is already a precedent from elsewhere for anti-Russian activists to target Russian-owned businesses, including in the US, where businesses have been vandalised and owners have received bomb threats.
WIDER CONCERNS AND LONG-TERM CHALLENGES
The European population remains broadly in favour of the European Union’s efforts to support Ukraine. An April Eurobarometer survey found that 80 percent approved of their governments’ financial support of Ukraine while 67 percent approve of the EU’s purchase and supply of military equipment to Ukraine. But the conflict has fed into Europe’s political and socio-economic landscape in a major way as governments re-adjust their budgets and longstanding foreign policies to accommodate these extraordinary circumstances. During ongoing efforts to suppress the Covid-19 pandemic, and address supply chain shortages and the associated commercial fallout of the war, Europe has faced widespread layoffs, high inflation and escalating living costs. Anger over the Ukraine conflict or related government policies could exacerbate frustrations over such issues; in late March, for example, around 40 people protested in Avranches in Normandy to show support for Ukraine, while a separate anti-vaccine rally took place nearby. Following a heated debate, anti-vaccine protesters shouted pro-Russian slogans, denouncing alleged (but unspecified) double standards of pro-Ukraine demonstrators.
European humanitarian efforts in the form of Ukrainian refugee intake (around 4 million so far) also retains high approval, with 83 percent of Eurobarometer survey respondents indicating that they are happy to welcome refugees. However, precedent stemming from Europe’s 2015 migrant crisis shows that some – mostly right-wing groups – could seize on the opportunity to incite opposition to refugees, Russians or government policies supporting migrants. With the Ukraine crisis quickly reshaping Europe’s asylum policies, including the decision to activate the Temporary Protection mechanism and associated rights, such as schooling and employment, could reignite anti-migrant or nationalist tensions that have continued to simmer in recent years alongside increasingly difficult socio-economic conditions.
A TIGHTROPE FOR EUROPEAN GOVERNMENTS
In the coming months, challenges of addressing the domestic fallout from the Ukraine crisis will continue to centre on more immediate questions of budgeting, EU policy coordination and refugee management complicated by a backlog of processing Middle Eastern and North African migrants. Longer-term challenges and a prolonged war will facilitate the need to address refugee integration amid lingering Russophobia and possible anti-refugee sentiment. There is also the potential strain on government resources due to ongoing financial, military and humanitarian support for Ukraine to consider. Perceptions that European governments are perhaps not doing enough to assist struggling families and businesses, despite offering employment and schooling to refugees, could also exacerbate societal tensions and anti-government sentiment, driving unrest.
On a political and socio-cultural level, the Ukraine war will continue to confront and shape Europe’s identity narrative of a tolerant and multicultural democratic space. In the coming year, the EU and individual European governments will face multiple pressures stemming directly and indirectly from the Ukraine war, which will force them to juggle difficult foreign policy decisions with heightened domestic tensions – and the longer the war lasts, the more such frustrations could urge individuals to retaliate through unrest and violence at a local level.