Russian officials are beefing up security in preparation for the 2014 Sochi games, the first Olympics to take place practically on the doorstep of an active guerrilla war. Intelligence analysts and regional experts say the Islamic insurgency raging across the North Caucasus mountains near the seaside resort of Sochi presents daunting threats.
Matthew Henman, a senior analyst at Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London, said the insurgents could try to “upstage the games with some kind of attack, which would provide a kind of bad PR for the Russian government.”
Though Russia needs high-tech security to protect the games, insurgents need little to disrupt them, as was demonstrated during April’s Boston Marathon explosions, when two shrapnel-packed, pressure-cooker bombs killed three people and injured more than 260.
“You don’t need an awful lot of expertise to create primitive but largely effective explosive devices,” Henman said.
The elder of the two Boston bombing suspects spent six months last year in the Russian province of Dagestan, which lies about 300 miles east of Sochi, roughly the distance between Boston and Philadelphia. Dagestan is the center of the insurgency that spread across Russia’s North Caucasus region after two separatist wars in the 1990s in neighboring Chechnya. Rebels seeking to carve out an Islamic state in the region have targeted police and other officials in near-daily shootings and bombings.
Hundreds of police officers, rescue workers, and ambulance crews turned out at the end of May to respond to emergency scenarios in preparation for the games.
“We conduct training to respond to a broad range of terror threats, like explosives at Olympic facilities or an attack by a group of criminals,” said Sarkis Pogosian, of the Russian Emergencies Ministry’s branch in southern Russia. More than 50 such exercises have been conducted in the past 18 months, according to the Interior Ministry.
The drills, though relatively small-scale, have exposed logistical problems that could hinder security efforts in larger emergencies, such as chronic traffic jams that would slow ambulances and a limited number of rescue helicopters.
“It would be practically impossible for ambulances and our vehicles to get to an Olympic facility,” Nikolai Vasilyev of Sochi’s search and rescue service said. “We can only hope that everything goes forward smoothly.”
Security always has been tight in Sochi, where Russian President Vladimir Putin has a residence he uses often to host visiting foreign leaders. The government has further strengthened security before the games, which officially begin Feb. 7. It has deployed 25,000 police officers and thousands of other military and security personnel to protect the city.
But with Islamic militants returning from Syria, threats of insurgents without, and ingrained corruption within, officials can only hope their security measures can go the distance.