Jihadist rebels from Russia’s North Caucasus have vowed to disrupt the Sochi Winter Olympics. From Moscow, academic and former adviser to the British Foreign Office Mark Galeotti argues that the terrorists are winning by controlling perceptions of the Games.
What is the price of security? Three billion U.S. dollars, it seems, as far as the Russians are concerned. Even in the midst of an economic slowdown, they have committed unparalleled resources to protect the Sochi Winter Olympics from jihadist terrorists, who largely hail from the turbulent North Caucasus.
More than 50,000 police and troops are being deployed, and a “ring of steel” is virtually locking the Games off from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, Russian forces have stepped up their counterinsurgency operations in the North Caucasus, east of Sochi, in the hope that rebels busily avoiding arrest or worse are not going to be planning terrorist attacks.
Most likely, though, the scale of the security around Sochi will simply displace attacks to other, more vulnerable targets.
While the chances of a successful attack on Sochi are relatively low, no security plan is foolproof, and there is always the chance that an attack might get through. The news that a suspected terrorist, Ruzanna “Salima” Ibragimova, may already be in Sochi is a useful reminder of this.
Perhaps most worrying for the authorities is the fact that some ethnic Slavs – though admittedly only a small number – have been converted to extreme Islam. The police tend to adopt crude racial profiling: watching people get off a train coming into Moscow, for instance, it is striking how often travellers looking as if they hail from the Caucasus get pulled aside for document checks. So, Slavic terrorists represent an unexpected new threat.
Most likely, though, the scale of the security around Sochi will simply displace attacks to other, more vulnerable targets. For example, three new double-decker express trains that shuttle passengers between Moscow and Sochi run on a thousand-mile stretch of track. It is impossible to monitor every bridge, culvert, or nook in which a bomb could be planted. Terrorists have hit the Moscow to St. Petersburg express train twice – in 2007 and 2009 – so this new line seems a likely target.
In the past month, deadly terrorist attacks have taken place in the southern Russian cities of Volgograd, Pyatigorsk, and Stavropol, and there are likely to be more. These centers are relatively easy for terrorists to reach, and their security forces have been depleted by the need to garrison Sochi. While there are terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus nearly every week, they rarely generate much media attention. Sadly, we have become used to them. Attacks outside the region, however, still have the capacity to shock the international community.
This raises what is perhaps the most powerful tactic the terrorists can use: fighting the information war.
Although they are outspent, outnum- bered, and outgunned by the security forces, the terrorists can play their own game.
Putin has made the Sochi Games a matter of personal pride and credibility, and has vowed that they will be both safe and well managed. Anything that mars them will thus be politically damaging for him.
In 2007, when Russia won the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, Putin and Russia’s fortunes were at their high point. This was meant to be the event that showed the world what the new Russia could do. Instead, they have been dogged with allegations of inefficiency, corruption, and overspending (at $52 billion, they are the most expensive Games ever), which are now overshadowed by security concerns.
Although they are outspent, outnumbered, and outgunned by the security forces, the terrorists can play their own game. By carrying out sporadic attacks elsewhere in southern Russia, by issuing threats against the Games, or simply by forcing the Kremlin to remain on high alert and hunt every real or rumored bomber, the terrorists are shaping how Russia and the world think of the Sochi Games.
Sochi may yet be a triumph for the Kremlin, with medals aplenty for the home team and no scandals or security breaches. At the moment, though, these are very much the “terrorism Games” – a far cry from the expression of confidence and success Putin had hoped they would project.