Death threats and hate speech target Russian Kiwis who oppose Ukraine war

Bitter divisions within New Zealand’s Russian community have led to hate speech and death threats, and many are now afraid to speak out against Putin even if they don’t support the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian president.

The animosity deepened to the point where the police and the Race Relations Commissioner became involved.

Commissioner Meng Foon said he was “extremely aware” of the strong feelings and offered to broker talks between the opposing parties.

“If I can help facilitate a conversation — whether online or in person — my door is always open,” Foon said.

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“My encouragement to all parties is to respect each other’s views and maintain smooth and respectful communications.”

Meanwhile, members of the Russian community will meet with a police ethnic relations officer on Monday to discuss concerns about extremist content online relating to the conflict in Ukraine.

Many Russians in New Zealand were prepared to publicly condemn the war in its early stages, when Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion.

Putin said the military operation was necessary to protect civilians in eastern Ukraine – a claim the United States had predicted he would make falsely to justify an invasion.

Many Russian Kiwis have joined protests like this to denounce Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

Many Russian Kiwis have joined protests like this to denounce Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian president accused the United States and its allies of ignoring Russia’s demands to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO.

His protests against NATO expansion have since backfired, with previously non-aligned Finland and Sweden both seeking membership in the military alliance in recent months.

As the war drags on into a fifth month, tensions among Russian Kiwis have escalated to such an extent that many no longer want to denounce the Kremlin.

A number of people have said Things they were afraid to take a public stand against the war because of fears of persecution and threats of violence – even though they live in New Zealand, which enjoys freedom of expression.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 7, 2022.

Mikhail Klimentiev/AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 7, 2022.

A Russian Kiwi provided copies of public social media posts made by a fellow Russian living in Auckland who supported Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Have you been hit? Email katie.ham@stuff.co.nz

The messages, aimed at anti-war Russians, contained threats of extreme violence, sexual assault and references to the Holocaust that are too explicit to repeat.

“I don’t think the New Zealand public is aware of the seriousness and danger of this divide,” said the anti-war Russian.

“As we learned with the Christchurch mosque killings, words can turn into action too quickly.”

Meng Foon, Race Relations Commissioner:

Chris Skelton / Stuff

Meng Foon, Race Relations Commissioner: “My encouragement to all parties is to respect each other’s views and maintain smooth and respectful communications.”

She asked that her name not be published as she feared her family would be targets of violence. Things verified his identity.

The online threats are part of a steady stream of pro-war content posted on various social media platforms in New Zealand.

This is causing growing government concern, with the head of the Foreign Ministry recently saying there was “no doubt” that Russian troll farms had been spreading disinformation online here on direct orders from the Kremlin.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said sanctions had been imposed on eight Russian entities as a result.

The Kremlin has taken a dim view of New Zealand’s support for Ukraine, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s recent attendance at a NATO conference in Europe has further chilled an already frosty relationship.

This has created a difficult situation for Russians living in New Zealand, who fear that something as simple as a Facebook post could put them at risk if they ever return to Russia.

Legislation of the Russian State Duma threat of fines, forced military conscription and prison terms for Russian citizens who engage in anti-war activities. Those who live abroad can also be considered ‘foreign agents‘ – a tool used to suppress criticism of the Kremlin.

“Things like this are designed to make our lives hell,” said the Russian Kiwi who feared threats of violence.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, left, talks to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a panel discussion at a NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, in June.

Bernat Armangue/AP

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, left, talks to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a panel discussion at a NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, in June.

“One day I want to be able to return to Russia without fear of imprisonment. My mother and my brother are still there. I still have a property in my name there. I don’t want to lose my homeland.

Things spoke with a number of other Russian Kiwis who echoed his sentiments but were also worried about sharing them publicly.

Meanwhile, another subsection of Russian Kiwis accept the Kremlin’s version of events – that Russia’s military action is justified defense against an aggressive West – and dismiss Kiwi media reports as “false”.

It is a striking contrast. While some Russians fled their homeland, others returned to support the war effort.

In April, Things Columnist Polly Gillespie described how her friend Olga’s position quickly changed after she returned to Moscow late last year.

“To hell with the West,” Olga wrote. “You only get one side of the story”.

A number of complaints have been lodged with the police following threats of violence directed at members of the Russian community in New Zealand.

A spokeswoman said police were unable to confirm the number of reported incidents, as they were categorized by type, “and not by factors such as the nationality of the complainants or around a theme such as an ongoing international conflict”.

Police did not respond to further questions regarding the conflict in the Russian community.

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