In 2007, when Russian president Vladimir Putin travelled 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 terrorism.
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 neighbouring 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 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 12 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 theatre 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 Dagestan suicide bombers. 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 authorise strikes against suspected terrorists, “wherever they may be”.
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 1990s, or raids by groups of militants, as in the 2000s, 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 epitomise everything the terrorists oppose, would be a likely target. Recent bombings in Volgograd in southern Russia and Pyatigorsk in the North Caucasus — which claimed three dozen lives — were probably designed to send a message to Russians that they are defenceless, while communicating to the rest of the world that Sochi is too dangerous to visit.
To some extent, they have succeeded. Some have cancelled their trips to Sochi, despite the international community’s condemnation of the attacks and vow to defy terrorism. US defence 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 co-operation 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.