Securing the Sochi Olympics

Read Time:4 Minute, 4 Second – 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

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.

Dmitri Trenin is Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Project Syndicate

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