Balancing opportunity and risk – security at Sochi 2014
5 Feb 2014|

Russian President Vladimir Putin inspects Sochi 2014 facilities with Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak in January 2014

Hosting an Olympic Games tends to raise the blood pressure of anyone involved, both in terms of the opportunity it presents and the subsequent risks associated with it, and Sochi 2014 has more than its fair share of those.  For Russia, and President Vladimir Putin, hosting the 2014 Winter Olympic Games has been seized as an opportunity to introduce the world to the ‘new’ self-confident Russia, one that is flourishing economically, and has, especially over the past year, reasserted itself as an influential global power.  A lavish $50 billion has been spent on converting a sub-tropical, Black Sea resort into a world-class centre for winter sports within seven years, making it the most expensive Olympic Games, summer or winter, in history. However, the opportunity can be contrasted against the risks that hosting the Olympics in Russia brings. Aside from the negative publicity around Russia’s legislation on gay rights and President Putin’s subsequent clumsy comments on the issue, a terrorist attack in Russia during the Games would be a disaster.

Sochi is situated on the Black Sea coastline within 300 miles of Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region, home to both Chechnya and Dagestan, centres of Islamist extremist activity. Insurgents from the region have threatened attacks on the Games for a number of years. Over the past 15 years, these groups have demonstrated their ability to strike targets in the heart of Russia as they’ve sought to make the Russian Government, under Putin’s leadership since 1999, pay for its military actions in the Caucusus.

In July 2013 Doku Umarov, leader of the group Imarat Kavkaz, whose stated goal is the liberation from Moscow of what it considers to be Muslim lands, issued a statement directly threatening the Olympics: ‘They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea. We as mujahideen are required not to allow that, using any methods that Allah allows us’.

Umarov’s fighters have been responsible for a spate of attacks in Russia, including suicide bombings on the Moscow metro in 2010, which killed 40 people, and at Domodedovo (Moscow) airport in 2011, which killed 37. This clear demonstration of both the intent and capability to deliver on their promises is worrying for Olympics organisers.  However, it was the attacks in Volgograd in December 2013 that focused both the Russian security services and the world’s attention on security for the Games. The twin bomb attacks  which killed 34 people, were clearly designed to disrupt the build-up to the games and bring attention to the terrorists cause.

A recent threat assessment by the UK Government concluded that more terrorist attacks in Russia are ‘very likely to occur’ in the run-up to, or during, the Olympics.  It’s hard to argue with this assessment, as there’s a dangerous blend of intent and capability to conduct attacks both from Umarov’s fighters and other groups from Dagestan and Chechnya.  This worry isn’t tempered by stories of Russian forces searching for up to three suspected female suicide bombers in and around Sochi.  Sochi itself is heavily protected, so any attack is most likely to be on ‘softer’ targets around Russia.  But any attack on Russia at this time will receive immediate global attention and create enormous reputational damage for Russia.

The Russians have responded in force and have taken the security of the Games extremely seriously. Public figures of approximately 40,000 police, troops and special forces could in fact underestimate the final number of personnel tied up in security delivery.  This is double the number that were deployed in the recent London 2012 games, and is reflective of both the severity of the threat to the Games and the nature of Russian security operations, which are often robust, forceful and conducted with large numbers of personnel.

A ‘ring of steel’ has been established around Sochi; only vehicles registered in Sochi and those with special documentation are allowed through checkpoints.  There’s only one road running in and out , which makes it a tough target to reach by land, as the only other option would be to climb the mountains surrounding the city, which are heavily patrolled by the military.  The sea is being guarded by a number of naval assets, including four of the Russian Navy’s new Grachonok anti-saboteur patrol boats.  The air is protected by Russian Air Force jets, S-400 and Pantsir-S anti-aircraft missiles, and at least a dozen drones. The Russians are also monitoring all email, telephone and internet traffic in order to intercept any communication between potential terrorist groups.

There’s already been an impact on the experience of the athletes attending the games.  An anonymous email threat, later discredited, was sent to the Australian, US, UK, Italian, German, Slovenian and Hungarian Olympic Associations, making reference to bombings and attacks against competitors and officials.  The US Olympic Committee sent a travel memo to athletes cautioning against wearing conspicuous Team USA gear outside the secure Olympic compound because it ’may put your personal safety at greater risk’.  Australian athletes have been confined to secure areas and the team management have banned travel to other cities over the security concerns.

What’s certain is that the security concerns surrounding Sochi 2014 are running higher than at most previous Olympic Games. President Putin will have a nervous few weeks as he’s placed his reputation on the line to deliver a successful, safe and secure Games, while introducing the ‘new’ Russia to the world. But doing this without suffocating the Olympic ‘experience’ with excessive, visible security will be problematic.

Tobias Feakin is a senior analyst at ASPI and Director of the International Cyber Policy Centre. Image credit to the Russian Presidential Executive Office.