Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
The Olympic rings reflected in water prior to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at the Olympic Park on 31 January, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images.The Olympic rings reflected in water prior to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at the Olympic Park on 31 January, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images.

With just a few days to go before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Western media coverage of the event is focusing on anything other than sport. Reports of massive corruption, unfinished infrastructure, tandem toilets, and the local mayor’s unfashionable views on homosexuality are embarrassing enough; but now a British threat assessment confirms a widespread view that terrorist attacks in Russia are 'very likely' before or during the Games.

Russia, and President Vladimir Putin himself, is deeply concerned about the international image of the upcoming Olympics, and the global perception of the country that will result. This is an opportunity to show the world that Russia is a modern power that can host a world-class event without serious incident or embarrassment.

But from the moment it was announced in 2007, the choice of Sochi as a venue was questioned on security grounds. The pleasant beach resort on the Russian Riviera is just a short drive from a wide selection of conflict zones in Russia’s troubled North Caucasus region. Attacks in southern Russia in late 2013 showed that terrorists from these areas can still reach hundreds of kilometres into the Russian heartlands. Sochi, by comparison, is just next door.

Although international attention is focused on the increased terrorist threat ahead of the Olympics, these attacks can also be seen as a regular part of the killing, bombing, abduction and terror that forms the background noise of life in some North Caucasus republics and that occasionally spills over into neighbouring regions of Russia. Sometimes, this can have severe and far-reaching ramifications. Russia’s ill-fated invasion of Chechnya in 1994 was launched in large part in response to a wave of Chechen terror attacks across the south of the country.

Sochi presents a tempting target to a wide range of groups that wish to attack or take revenge on Russia. Geography combines with timing to amplify potential threats to the event. The games take place on the 150th anniversary of a Russian military campaign in the area that included a programme of deportations and what some activists call genocide.

Russia’s many security structures have therefore made intensive efforts to pre-empt any threats. As well as saturating the Sochi area with police and security forces and setting up multiple cordons intended to prevent attackers from reaching the Games areas, these also include invasive security measures such as intensified surveillance of the phone calls and internet connections of Olympic visitors.

But even the effectiveness of the so-called ‘ring of steel’ around Sochi has been called into doubt. Past experience of similar operations in Russia calls into question the motivation, efficiency and susceptibility to corruption of the security forces, to say nothing of the ‘volunteers’ manning internal checkpoints. And in mid-January local media highlighted the case of the R-254 highway from Maykop to Tuapse, a narrow mountain road straight from the North Caucasus to Sochi, which apparently bypasses security checkpoints altogether.

At the same time, flooding Sochi with security forces depletes coverage of other key terrorist targets. An attack on the Sochi Olympics need not be in Sochi; athletes and international visitors are at risk at a number of soft targets in transit through Moscow and other cities. Single points of failure and vulnerable targets include the trains intended to shuttle passengers between Moscow and Sochi along a thousand-mile stretch of track.

Terrorists have repeatedly mounted successful attacks on railway lines in Russia, and it impossible to monitor every bridge or culvert where a bomb could be planted. In cases like this, the advice to British, US and other Olympic teams not to display national colours or uniforms outside the immediate Olympic area will be of little help.

Russia’s potential responses to any terrorist event also give rise to concern. High-profile hostage situations do not normally end well in Russia. From the use of heavy weapons against both terrorists and their victims in Budennovsk and Pervomaysk in the 1990s, to the mass gassing of hostages in the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow in 2002 and the Beslan school siege in 2004, the authorities’ track record is one of botched operations and heavy civilian casualties.

The example of the Munich Olympics in 1972, and its international repercussions, should be at the front of the minds of Russian planners. But when discussing security threats to the Olympics in November 2013, a Russian military officer described the Olympic area as being ‘very well planned for defence in operational terms’. This was another example of a security official speaking in terms of pitched battles rather than precision operations.

Allegations of corruption, bigotry, and construction and planning standards which are baffling to Westerners, are nothing new for Russia, and the region’s serious internal security problems are also well known. Russia’s prized international reputation faces a greater threat: international headlines that confirm the stereotypes, that show that even with seven years of planning and preparation, Russia cannot protect its own public or international visitors, nor respond appropriately to a security incident in the full view of the world.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback