Escalation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict sows fears in minorities of a spike in violent attacks by the far-right in Germany
The Muslim community of Germany is bracing for potential attacks by far-right groups who are backing the Russian invasion of Ukraine and could be used by embattled President Vladimir Putin to hit back at his European rivals.
There is growing fear that the Russian President could use his allies in Europe’s far-right — including neo-Nazi extremist groups — to target the US and European Union which are providing weapons, intelligence and diplomatic support to the Ukrainian government.
Germany has the second-largest Muslim population in Europe after France with nearly 4.7 million people.
Putin has long been a figure of inspiration for many European far-right leaders – from the UK's Nigel Farage to Germany's AfD leadership and the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
According to research conducted by Dr. Beatrix Campbell, Professor of International Relations at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, the threat of Russian retaliation on European countries through far-right proxies is highly likely.
Dr. Campbell says, "Splitting Europe and fostering internal conflict has long been Putin's strategy, I wouldn't put it past him to mobilise his connections within Europe's far-right to create trouble here. And they are obviously up for it, not just because of the long-term funding they have received from Putin's associates, but also ideologically."
Dr. Campbell, who authored a research paper titled, 'Political Synergy: How the European Far-Right and Russia Have Joined Forces Against Brussels', warns that Putin could use all options available to him, including illegal neo-Nazi groups.
"Putin's political allies in Europe are lying low these days, and for obvious reason, but that could change once the dust settles from this conflict, even now if you look at what the AFD in Germany is saying or what Hungary's Foreign Minister said, is worrying," she tells TRT World.
Dr. Campbell's research reveals intimate political connections between several European far-right organisations and Russia, the extent of their policy coordination, funding, regular meetings and similarities in opposition to NATO and the European Union.
A recent press release from Germany's far-right political party, the Alternative for Deutschland, was a testament to these close links.
The press release puts the blame for Putin's aggression towards Ukraine on NATO's eastward expansion – in line with President Putin's long-held view.
The Hungarian Foreign Minister also recently announced that his country wouldn't allow the transfer of weapons through its territory into Ukraine, "The reason for making this decision is that such deliveries might become targets of hostile military action and ... we have to ensure the security of Hungary ... that we are not getting involved in that war."
Dr. Campbell says there's undeniable evidence of relations between Europe's far-right political parties and Russia. But she warns of a more menacing threat to Europe and its minorities.
"I wouldn't rule out a violent backlash from the far-right towards minorities in Europe to sow discord and bring instability and insecurity in European communities" she says.
"They can easily target minority groups, create insecurity, where the state's security services would find it difficult to maintain peace", she adds.
Putting up defenses
Germany has a high number of illegal Neo-nazi organisations which, Dr. Campbell believes, could be used to spread fear is the country's minority communities.
But Germany's minorities aren't taking a back seat. Quiet preparations are underway to better protect Germany's ethnic and religious minorities.
General Secretary of the Muslim Council of Germany, Abdassamad El Yazidi, tells TRT World, "The staff in the mosques are being trained on how to deal with risks. We are working on this because it’s necessary, because we can't always just rely on the police."
"We are doing risk awareness, installing a safety officer, we are giving them training - the police are supporting us to spread awareness in the community. We are hoping to develop good connections with the mosques and police, so that we can foster easier communications."
And, he says, if there is an attack, "the police are aware of the mosque's layout, exits and entrances".
According to a recent report published by European security agency, Europol, threats from right-wing extremists have risen sharply during the pandemic.
Figures released by the German government show 23,000 far-right attacks in 2020, a rise of nearly 20 percent from 2019.
"There are almost daily attacks on mosques and Muslims across Germany, many of these attacks aren't even recorded," says El Yazidi.
In the city of Halle one mosque has now been attacked three times in two years. The latest attack came when a 55-year-old far-right extremist fired three bullets at the mosque from his apartment in an adjacent building.
The mosque has had 24-hour police protection since the first time it was attacked.
While El Yazidi says that the attacks have increased, he also acknowledges that Germany's recently-elected left-wing coalition government has taken a more serious approach to tackle the far-right problem.
"The new government has been more proactive in dealing with concerns of the Muslim community. There has been a definite shift in attitudes," he says.
On the recent anniversary of one of the worst far-right attacks in Hanau, where nine people were killed by a far-right extremist, El Yazidi says, "the Interior Minister Nancy Faeser was in attendance, she paid her respects and spoke to community leaders about the government's conviction to stopping far-right attacks on minority communities".