Could extremists attack Sochi during the Olympics?

An expert makes sense of the recent violence that has erupted in Volgograd and Stavropol

Published January 15, 2014 2:00PM (EST)

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global PostSochi is probably the safest place in Russia these days.

While that may be welcome news for Olympians, it’s probably bad news for Russians elsewhere.

GlobalPost spoke to Mark Galeotti, a global affairs professor at New York University who's written extensively about Russia and its security apparatus.

Galeotti says the recent terrorist attacks in Volgograd and Stavropol are unlikely to undermine security at the 2014 Winter Olympics given the attention surrounding the games.

However, targets are likely to open up elsewhere as hundreds of police and military personnel are diverted to Sochi from across Russia.

“The rebels, if they can’t hit Sochi, they’ll hit somewhere else,” Galeotti says. “All these resources, all these police officers and so forth, have to come from somewhere. So what we’re seeing, particularly in the south, is other cities are having their security basically downgraded in order to secure Sochi.”

Here's what Galeotti had to say about Sochi's security, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and those who seek to target the Winter Olympics.

How real is the threat to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi? Are extremists planning an attack, or are they simply operating on the outskirts to generate headlines?

Galeotti: It’s certainly the case that the insurgents would love to be able to launch a terrorist attack against [Sochi]. On the other hand, most of their operations are relatively simple and opportunistic, and just the sheer scale of security operations is going to provide a high level of security.

It’s not guaranteed. First, no security is guaranteed, particularly against people who don’t mind dying in the process.

However many soldiers and police you throw in, unprofessionalism and corruption — which are two perennial problems in Russian security — could always undermine that. But, nonetheless, I think Sochi is probably a lot safer than other parts of the Russian south.

Who are the extremists behind recent violence in Volgograd and Stavropol?

Galeotti: Essentially, it’s a whole (fragile) collection of insurgent groups in the North Caucasus. In theory, there is an umbrella organization called the Caucasus Emirate where the Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov is the self-appointed emir. But, in practice, this is a very loose umbrella organization. Umarov does not command anyone except his personal entourage.

Some of them are primarily opposed to what they regard as foreign, Muscovite, imperialist law. Some of them are truly jihadists. Many of them fit somewhere in the middle, and then there are others who blend in to gangsters, kidnappers, and drug dealers. It comes from this bubbling ferment of general opposition to the status quo.

Is Russia prepared to the handle security?

Galeotti: The Russians suffer from several limitations. In particular, they don’t really have any intelligence penetration of the insurgent groups themselves; they don’t really have insiders. Instead, what they’re relying on is what they’re good at: the $2 billion they’re spending on just security for Sochi.

They’re throwing twice as many police and soldiers at Sochi as were involved in securing the London Olympics even though the London Games were much, much bigger, they lasted longer and were actually taking place in a major city. They’re creating this really draconian security zone around Sochi.

The part of the story that doesn’t really get told is at present is that they're really hammering even suspected insurgents and insurgent sympathizers in the North Caucasus. There are a lot of people being arrested; there are a lot of doors being kicked down. … The idea being that if the rebels and the terrorists are too busy just trying to stay one step ahead of the police and the security forces, then they are not also going to be thinking of some nefarious plot against Sochi.

In your opinion, will Sochi be attacked?

Galeotti: We are going to see terrorist attacks, unfortunately, in my opinion. But I think it’s less likely to be in Sochi than anywhere else.

What is Putin’s reaction likely to be if something happens in or around Sochi?

Galeotti: His reaction will be typically Putin: the mailed fist. We could expect massive security operations and very tough rhetoric… My concern would be that, if there is an attack, Putin would try something adventurous. Who knows what? I wouldn’t want to predict a war with a bordering state, or something, but certainly he’d be trying something to distract public opinion.

By David Trifunov

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2014 Sochi Olympics Globalpost Olympics Russia Security Terrorism