Terrorism threatens to define the Sochi games

What is the price of security? As far as the Russians are concerned, it seems the figure is some $3 million. Even in the midst of an economic slowdown, the Russian government has committed unparalleled resources to protect the winter Olympic games at Sochi from jihadist terrorists, who largely hail from the turbulent region of the North Caucasus.

More than 50,000 police and troops are being deployed at the venue, 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, in the area east of Sochi, in the hope that the rebels, if they are busily avoiding arrest or worse, are not going to be planning terrorist attacks.

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 succeed in getting through. The news that a suspected terrorist, Ruzanna “Salima” Ibragimova, may already be in Sochi is a useful reminder of these realities.

Perhaps what is most worrying for the authorities is the fact that some ethnic Slavs – though admittedly only a small number of them – have been converted to an extreme form of Islam. The Russian police tend to adopt crude racial profiling: watching people get off a train and coming into Moscow, for instance, it is striking how often travelers looking as if they hail from the Caucasus get pulled aside for document checks. So, the existence of Slavic terrorists represents an unexpected new threat for the police and security forces.

Most likely, however, 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 the terrorists to reach, and the Russian security forces in all three cities 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. Russian President Vladimir 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, preparation for the games has 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, the Olympics in Sochi are being very much depicted as the “terrorism Games” – a far cry from the expression of confidence and success Putin had hoped they would project.

Mark Galeotti is a professor of global affairs at New York University’s SCPS Center for Global Affairs and an expert on Russian security affairs. He is currently carrying out field research in Moscow. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 27, 2014, on page 7.




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