Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged that the Olympic Games in Sochi will be “the safest Olympics in history,” but in light of the recent terrorist bombings in Russia, questions have arisen as to why Putin says Sochi will be safe.
Sochi will be the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, February 7-23.
The Winter Olympics, Russia’s first Winter Games, are a matter of personal prestige and a major project for Putin, who has spent a record $48 billion on the games. This sum is four times the cost of the London Olympics and 25 times the cost of the Vancouver Olympics.
Sochi is about 430 miles (690 kilometers) Southwest of Volgograd, where two recent suicide bombing incidents killed 33 people in 24 hours. In October, six people died when a bus was blown up by a suicide bomber in Volgograd. Although the distance is not small between Volgograd and Sochi, Volgograd is seen as a gateway to Sochi.
These bombings are just an example of a commonplace occurrence in Russia. Many suicide bomb attacks have been carried out in Russia in the last decade.
Security at the Sochi Games has been questioned in light of the recent terrorist bombings in the region.
Sochi is in the western North Caucasus, 500 miles (800 kilometers) west of Chechnya and 700 miles (1000 kilometers) west of Dagestan in the far eastern North Caucuses . Volgograd is 500 miles north of Dagestan and Chechnya and 600 miles north of Sochi by road. These locations form a triangle. This proximity is said to comprise a huge security challenge for the Games.
The North Caucasus region is seen as the base for hostile Islamist insurgency against Russia. Islamist terrorists in the region have claimed responsibility for several attacks on Russia in recent years.
Dagestan, the most volatile province in the North Caucasus, has been linked to last Sunday’s railway station bombing in initial findings.
The Domodedovo Airport bombing in 2011 was also claimed by a North Caucasus terrorist, Doku Umarov of Chechnya, who threatened further attacks. Domodedovo is Moscow’s busiest airport.
The recent Volgograd railway station and the Domodedovo bombings have highlighted the weaknesses in public transport security. Both bombings took place outside the secure areas of the transport hubs.
Despite the concerns being raised, and despite increased security ordered by Putin in Volgograd, the Russian Olympic Committee has stated that no additional security measures would be adopted in Sochi. Chief of the Committee, Alexander Zhukov said last Monday that “all necessary security measures are provided for.”
Given the huge importance of Sochi to Putin, the expectation is that all of Russia’s formidable military, police, intelligence, and counter-terrorism apparatus will be employed to protect the Games. These measures contribute to the answer of why the Sochi Olympics will be safe.
The security measures that have been adopted are some of the most extensive ever seen for a public sports event. Identity checks, a large secure perimeter and travel restrictions are among these measures.
Tickets for the games must be purchased online from the organizers. The organizers then issue a “spectator pass” to the attendee. This measure provides authorities with passport details and contacts, which will be checked to screen visitors. Visitors identities will be confirmed on arrival in Sochi.
The secure perimeter around Sochi extends 60 miles south to Black Sea Coast and 25 miles north. Special troops patrol the forested mountains surrounding the Sochi Games resort. Drones constantly monitor Olympic facilities. Speed boats patrol the coast.
The secure zone will be barred from all un-authorized automobile traffic for one month before the Games begin until one month after the Games end.
Trains to Sochi must pass first through Volgograd and other Russian cities, at which points security should be expected.
No flights directly to Sochi are permitted from any origin outside the former Soviet Union. Most flights to Sochi originate in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Foreign visitors will only be able to fly directly to Sochi via charter or private flights.
Comfort of visitors to the Sochi Olympics is assured by the Russian Security Service, despite the heavy security measures. The head of the Federal Security Service was quoted, “Our security measures will be unnoticeable and in no way will inhibit the movements of Olympic guests.”
The London Olympics of 2012, set in a metropolitan area much harder to protect than Sochi, was cited by the Security Service head as an event where security measures were much more conspicuous:
“If you remember London, on the roofs of houses there were snipers and rocket complexes, despite the protests of the locals. … There were also military personnel on the streets, but we will not have this.”
Warnings, however, have been issued by various observers and interested parties, who have pointed out that although the Sochi Olympic resort might be secured against attacks, the greater risk is to transport targets around cities near the North Caucasus. Matthew Clements of London’s IHS security organization warned, “The [Volgograd] attack demonstrates the militants’ capability to strike at soft targets such as transport infrastructure.” Moscow was also noted as a possible terrorist target.
Clements warned, “Any sort of soft target in and around the games, anything that would harm the reputation of the games, would be a viable target for the terrorists.” Not only transport hubs but Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Procter & Gamble–sponsors of the games–could be the site of a planned attack, Clements suggested.
Terrorism in Russia is a problem that has been taken up by America.
The U.S. has voiced its support of Russia in Russia’s fight against terrorism. White House spokesperson Caitlin Hayden stated, “The US government has offered our full support to the Russian government in security preparations for the Sochi Olympic Games.”
The Boston Bombings of April, 2013 have been explained by the U.S. government as carried out by two brothers tied to the North Caucasus region. Since that time, the U.S. and Russia have cooperated in counterterrorism, according to the U.S. government, who issued a joint U.S.-Russian counterterroism report recently which states, “In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, our nations have redoubled our counterterrorism and law enforcement efforts.”
Threats against the Olympics have come from the same region the U.S. has focussed on as tied to the Boston Bombings.
Last July Doku Umarov, the Chechen rebel leader, called for militants to target the Sochi Olympics. Umarov’s message was distributed by video. Umarov threatened to use “maximum force” to disrupt the Sochi Olympics. Umarov called the Games “satanic” because the Olympic site was “on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims, buried on the territory of our land on the Black Sea,” referring to a battle fought during the Tsarist expansion in the 19th century.
Umarov had previously ordered his followers “to limit [violent] operations, if there is a risk that the peaceful Russian population may get harmed,” but in the July video Umarov cancelled this order.
Umarov was the self-proclaimed President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria–a government which succeeded from Chechnya–before Umarov formed the Caucasus Emirate.
Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate group has been listed as terrorist since 2011 by the U.S. and UN. Last Monday Canada also listed it as terrorist.
Past attempts by Umarov to attack the Sochi site have been made, according to Russia’s National Terrorist Committee and Federal Security Service, who claim to have foiled a plot in 2012. Russian authorities seized portable surface-to-air missiles, grenade launchers, landmines and other weapons 200 kilometers from Sochi in the republic of Abkhazia.
Confidence is a theme expressed by many of those involved with Olympic sport.
Confidence has been voiced by the organizer of the 1994 Lillehammer Olympic Winter Games, Norwegian Gerhard Heiberg, who said he was not surprised at the pre-Sochi bombings. “I feel that everything that is humanly possible is being done,” said Heiberg. “When we come to Sochi, it will be impossible for the terrorists to do anything. The village will be sealed off from the outside world.”
“Sochi will be turned into a veritable fortress,” was the comment made by Leonid Bershidsky at Bloomberg View. Bershidsky noted that Putin “would not forgive” authorities if they allowed anyone to mess with Putin’s Olympic showcase.
The Canadian Olympic Committee has assured its athletes that their safety is its main concern at Sochi. Noting the distraction the terrorist threat poses to the Olympic competition, the Committee stated that it “strives to ensure that athletes feel safe and secure at all times so 100 percent of their attention is focused on their sport and achieving podium success.”
Britain has confirmed its national team’s participation in the Sochi Olympics. Lord Coe, the British Olympic chairman, noted that the recent violent attacks had only reinforced the importance of going ahead with the Olympics, one of the biggest sporting events participated in by every nation on earth.
Australia’s leaders have expressed the opposite of Lord Coe’s confidence.
Australia is exploring the idea of an attendance ban on its athletes as a response to the Volgograd incidents. Australia’s foreign minister made a public statement to this effect last week.
The choice of Sochi as the site of the Olympics has been criticized since the beginning for security reasons–specifically because of its location so close to the perceived center of European Islamist terrorism. It has been commented on since the beginning that the Olympics at Sochi will take place under the constant threat of terrorist attacks.
Even if there are no attacks at Sochi, the terrorist threat will be an effective way to rattle the nerves of Russians and everyone else ahead of the games. There is evidence enough, though, to answer either way to the question of why the Sochi Olympics will be safe despite terrorist threats or that the recent bombings foreshadow an impending disaster at the 2014 Olympic Games.
By Day Blakely Donaldson