Preparing for Sochi

Elliott School experts explain why despite threats, Russian leaders are “confident” Olympics will be safe.

February 05, 2014

By Julyssa Lopez

All eyes are on Russia as the country pulls together its final plans for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Threats of terrorism have made preparations for the monumental event more difficult, and the Russian government has faced criticism for how it has handled security measures and operations to carry out the $51 billion project—the most expensive games in history.

Robert Orttung, assistant director of the George Washington University Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES), has been analyzing Russia’s investment in the Winter Olympics while working on the paper “The Political Economy of Russia’s Mega-Projects” for East European Politics. He and co-author Sufian Zhemukhov, a visiting scholar at IERES, spoke to George Washington Today about the country’s history of fighting terrorism and how it plans to keep threats at bay.
Q: What is Russia doing to protect not just athletes and spectators but the country as a whole? 
A: Russia has imposed what President Vladimir Putin called a “ring of steel” around Sochi. The authorities have deployed at least 72,000 police and soldiers to protect the athletes and spectators. There are also considerable military and intelligence resources on hand. While it is impossible to predict what will happen, everyone from President Barack Obama on down suggests that the games will be safe. The U.S. announced its own plan to rescue the American team if necessary, and is deploying two ships in the Black Sea and making other preparations at an air base in Germany.
The security arrangements are the product of a large bureaucracy. The head of security operations is a counter-intelligence expert, rather than a counter-terrorism specialist. This appointment suggests that the authorities are more worried about spies and anti-government activities sponsored from abroad than terrorists. Each of the thousands of policemen and soldiers deployed in Sochi at various checkpoints wants to make sure that he or she does not get blamed for anything that goes wrong. In that sense, they are focused on following all procedures as much as preventing an attack, perhaps wasting many resources.
Q: Can you describe some of the geographic reasons Russia faces trouble with terrorism?
A: Even though Russia has suffered from numerous terrorist attacks since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, most of these attacks are focused on the North Caucasus just next to Sochi. There is an ongoing insurgency, and hundreds of people die in attacks there each year. When the terrorists want to send a message to the Russian authorities, they have also attacked Moscow, particularly transportation links, such as the airport, trains and the subway— but also a theater producing a popular musical. The three attacks in Volgograd that took place at the end of 2013 were unusual because they occurred outside of the restive Caucasus and capital areas. 
Foreign fighters from the Middle East operating in the North Caucasus have been a problem in the past, but their influence has been waning in recent years. However, many fear that Russians who have gone to Syria to fight against the Bashar al-Assad government will return with battlefield experience that they will use in Russia. 
The Caucasus Emirate group appeared in 2007 and has been a major source of concern. In July 2013, the group’s leader, Doku Umarov, threatened to attack the Olympics in a video released on Youtube. There is little information about the true capabilities of this network of fighters. 
Moreover, the group that took credit for the Volgograd bombings was previously unknown to observers and its further intentions are not clear. The leaders of Caucasus Emirate consider their organization to be a virtual, or underground, state with seven regions (vilayets). Each vilayet has its own insurgent group that is responsible for actions in that region. Because the Sochi area is not included in that structure, it is hard to say which one of the dispersed insurgent groups would attack it, which complicates the task for the Russian security services. 
Q: Have other Olympic hosts faced this level of terrorism risk in past games, or is Russia unique because of its history? 
A: Other Olympics have certainly faced strong fears of terrorist attacks. The Salt Lake City games took place shortly after 9/11, and the organizers put in place numerous measures to prevent possible violence. When the games were held in Athens in 2004, the U.S. feared that terrorists would strike there and contributed considerable resources to maintain a safe environment. Until now, the Olympics were not held in an area with such a direct threat of terrorism. Nevertheless, Russia’s leaders express confidence that they can address the threat without much outside help.
Q: Your forthcoming paper, “The Political Economy of Russia’s Mega-Projects,” analyzes the impact of Russia’s Olympic investment. Can you describe how President Putin is using the project to shape Russia’s image?
A: President Putin sees the Olympics as one of his crowning achievements. He has invested heavily in redeveloping Sochi, seeing it as a showcase for his efforts to improve Russia after what he describes as the chaotic 1990s. While one can question whether a small city can use so many hotel rooms and high-profile sporting facilities, hopefully, the infrastructure investments will improve the lives of the local residents.