Thursday, November 27, 2014

Securing the Sochi Olympics

MOSCOW – In 2007, when Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Guatemala City to support his country’s bid to host this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, he knew that winning would be the easiest step in the process. Many joked that only Russia would propose a subtropical seaside resort for a winter-sports competition. But, while concerns about a lack of snow in the surrounding mountains, or about Russia’s ability to build the needed infrastructure in time, have gradually receded since Russia was awarded the games, one major apprehension has remained: the threat of terrorism.

Sochi is located in the North Caucasus region, which, following the Soviet Union’s dissolution, experienced a long and brutal armed insurgency in Chechnya, while neighboring Dagestan, in particular, later became a hotbed of Islamist extremism and terrorism. In fact, Putin gained widespread support among the Russian people through his decisive and ruthless handling of separatism in the North Caucasus – support that helped persuade then-President Boris Yeltsin to appoint Putin as his successor in 1999.

Once in office, Putin – with a military victory and a policy of reconciliation – managed to pacify Chechnya, leaving it more a feudal khanate associated with Russia than a real part of the Russian Federation. As a result, for the last dozen years, there has been peace with – and within – Chechnya.

Terrorism has turned out to be a more stubborn challenge. As the war in Chechnya was drawing to a close in 2002, hundreds of people in a Moscow theater were taken hostage by terrorists from the North Caucasus. Similarly, in 2004, hundreds of schoolchildren in Beslan, North Ossetia, were seized by an armed group. The death toll in these two attacks alone topped 500.

In 2005, armed Islamists seized Nalchik, a regional capital in the North Caucasus, and held it for a day. In 2010, at least 40 people died in two explosions in the Moscow metro set off by suicide bombers from Dagestan. The following year, 37 people were killed in a similar fashion at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport. The attacks have continued, despite Putin’s stated willingness to authorize strikes against suspected terrorists, “wherever they may be.”

It is fair to say that terrorists have been at war with Russia almost from the very moment the Soviet Union dissolved. But it is no longer a fight for independence for a particular region in the Caucasus; instead, it is a fight to establish a “Caucasus caliphate” based on Sharia law.

The terrorists’ methods have also changed. Their tactic of choice is no longer armed insurgency, as in the 1990’s, or raids by groups of militants, as in the 2000’s, but individual acts of terror. The targets range from police stations and liquor stores in the Caucasus to mainstream Muslim clerics in Tatarstan to ordinary people elsewhere in Russia. The Tsarnaev brothers – responsible for last year’s Boston Marathon bombings – exemplify this brand of terrorism, aimed at modern secular society in general, whether in Russia or elsewhere.

It has been clear from the beginning that the Sochi Olympics, which epitomize everything that the terrorists oppose, would be a likely target. The recent bombings in Volgograd, in southern Russia, and Pyatigorsk, in the North Caucasus – which claimed three dozen lives – were probably designed to send the message to Russians that they are defenseless, while communicating to the rest of the world that Sochi is too dangerous to visit.

And, to some extent, they have succeeded. Some have canceled their trips to Sochi, despite the international community’s condemnation of the attacks and vow to defy terrorism. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently told reporters that the US, working with Russian security officials, will be prepared to extract Americans from Sochi in the event of an attack.

But the fact is that Sochi is perhaps the best-protected place in Russia today. With Putin’s personal standing at stake, the top priority of Russia’s police and security services is to ensure that the games proceed without incident.

This raises another risk: with major law-enforcement assets deployed in or near Sochi, terrorists might try to strike elsewhere during the Olympics. After all, Russia is a vast country, and the terrorist cells are small and notoriously difficult to penetrate, partly because they often use primitive modes of communication that are difficult to detect. And, while international cooperation to combat terrorism is useful, its impact is constrained by suspicion and mistrust, as the Boston Marathon bombings highlighted.

Parallel to the Sochi Olympics, another contest is already underway between the terrorists who seek to disrupt the games, or at least mar the atmosphere surrounding them, and the forces of the Russian state, whose task is to thwart the terrorists’ plans. This is one contest that Russia absolutely must win.

Read more from "Europe's Eastern Question"

  • Contact us to secure rights


  • Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (1)

    Please login or register to post a comment

    1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      In 1975, the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev wrote to a colleague in the Politburo complaining of the costs involved and warning of possible scandals if Moscow hosted the Olympics. In July 1980 he declared the Games open in the packed Central Lenin Stadium in Moscow.
      Vladimir Putin has taken a very different approach to the Winter Olympics 2014. Thanks to oil revenues, Russia can afford to spend. He has made Sochi his pet project and been heavily involved - from lobbying the IOC to bring the Games to Russia, to inspecting construction sites and, finally testing out sports facilities. The event offers him the opportunity to show Russia as a great world power, and himself as a great leader. Ironically the spirally costs and scandals that Leonid Brezhnev had feared are now a feature of Putin's Games.
      What makes Emir Doku Umarov, the fugitive leader of the Caucasus group, Imarat Kavkaz (IK), vow to target Sochi is that the Games coincide with the 150th year of the deportation of the Circassians from their homeland, where the event takes place. The bloodiest battle of all, which Circassians refer to as their "last stand," occurred in the vicinity of Sochi, the Circassian capital, in 1864. The Circassians describe the atrocities as the first modern genocide. Human remains were allegedly found at Olympic construction sites, and Umarov said the Games are "Satanic dances" on the bones of their ancestors.