The Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, which begin this February, mark a momentous occasion and opportunity for a resurgent President Vladimir Putin to show the world the best Russia has to offer under his leadership, and to prove wrong some critics who point to a record of recent human rights abuses and mistreatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons under Russian law. In many ways, however, the Games amount to a test not only of Mr. Putin’s social policy, but more importantly of his policing ability in light of serious security concerns.
Recent terrorist suicide bombings that claimed 34 lives and injured scores of others in the Russian industrial city of Volgograd point to what Fox News called a “chilling” overture of possible terrorist activity during the Sochi games. Volgograd, a scant 400 miles from Sochi, suffered at the hands of radical Islamist Chechen discontent. Muslim populations originating from the Caucus Mountains have for long waged war against the rest of Russia, stoking increasing levels of brutality on either side of the civil conflict. Moscow has killed thousands of its own citizens from Chechnya to Dagestan, and Islamic militants have responded in kind, bombing public transit and other civilian targets with alarming frequency in the Russian capital and most recently in Volgograd on separate occasions in October 2013, and two explosions within 24 hours in late December 2013.
Concurrent to these terrorist attacks, and the risk of further activity, the United States’ Department of State issued a travel advisory warning American citizens of the dangers of travelling to Russia around the time of the Olympic Games. The US move to minimise the risks to its citizens represents a broader international concern for terrorism at these and future games. Mr. Putin, for his part, is not resting on his laurels. Russian authorities are installing an additional 40,000 police and military personnel in the city, and creating what amounts to a secure perimeter around Sochi by installing six missile defence systems. On Russian television this month, Mr. Putin proclaimed that he fully understood “the scope of the threat and how to deal with it and how to prevent it.” Given how much Mr. Putin has staked on these games, both personally and politically, the successful execution of the Olympics in Sochi is crucial, as is the need to protect the citizens of Russia and those of other participating nations from the threat of terrorism.
More than any other issue or debate surrounding the Sochi Winter Olympics, terrorism – and the unique quality of terrorist roots in southern Russia – has the capacity to disrupt Mr. Putin’s carefully crafted image of a stable and unified Russian Federation, an image that he has worked to steadily construct over his 13 years in and out of the Presidency. Yet terrorist operatives and the community of thousands of Muslim Chechens that bred their efforts may indeed bring Putin’s house of cards tumbling down. Though it may appear as a seemingly far-fetched comparison, the Boston Marathon bombings of April 2013 offer a dark foreshadowing of homegrown, clandestine, and highly visible Chechen attacks against public targets on par with the Sochi Olympics. If the creeping tendrils of Chechen Islamist extremism can reach and so influence Tamerlan and Dhokhar Tsarnaev in Cambridge, Massachusetts, very little stands between those strands of terrorist thought and ideology and a resort town on the Russian Black Sea coast.
The ramifications of an ill-prepared and unsafe Olympics are many for Mr. Putin. Though revered in Russia at near demi-god status, his credentials as a strongman ruler and enforcer of domestic stability may suffer as a result of an attack small or large at Sochi, which may in turn hurt his administration or future electability. And while a domestic loss of face would poll poorly for Putin, he would doubtless endure fierce criticism from already skeptical Western governments for letting terrorists slip through the net at Sochi, and possible security balancing reevaluations by current Russian allies, both in the Black Sea region and around the world.
With nearly 10,000 American citizens competing or visiting Sochi for the Winter Olympics, and thousands more from other countries across the globe, time is of the essence for Vladimir Putin to secure the games and protect citizens domestic and foreign from the threat of terrorism. These Olympic games, like all those before them, are an opportunity to showcase what is truly excellent about Russia and her achievements, of which there are many, but above all to foster a sense of global optimism, harmony, and collaborative-competitive spirit. Games marred by the spectre, or worse, success, of terrorism will defeat that spirit. Only a safe and secure environment for the athletes, their families, and the many spectators can assure that continuing Olympic vibrancy and keep the flame alive.