Will Russia's 'ring of steel' keep Sochi safe?

Putin has spent $2 billion to keep the Winter Games safe from terrorist attacks like those in Volgograd last month. But even if Sochi is safe, Russia may not be.

Alexei Nikolsky/Presidential Press Service/RIA-Novosti/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a friendly hockey match at The Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi, Russia, on Saturday. With the Olympics Games just a month away, Mr. Putin faces a difficult balancing act of both improving his international reputation and cracking down on terrorism after last month's bombings in Volgograd.

With just one month to go before the Sochi Olympics open, Russia is launching the biggest security operation in Olympic history in a tense and largely secret effort to thwart an invisible enemy who has sworn to do everything possible to blight the prestigious international event with acts of mass terror.

President Vladimir Putin traveled to Sochi last week to inspect the Olympic venue's $2 billion "ring of steel" defenses, which are to go into full operation tomorrow, exactly a month before the Games begin. Earlier he visited Volgograd, where two suicide bombings killed 34 people just before the New Year, and pledged additional measures to fight the terrorists until their "complete annihilation."

He has won some support from the international community. In recent days announcements by US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and British Prime Minister David Cameron have promised unspecified but deeper and more effective security cooperation with Russia in the run-up to the Olympics. "We both want the Sochi Games to be a safe and secure Games," Mr. Cameron told journalists after a telephone conversation with Mr. Putin last Friday.

Sochi's "ring of steel" is a zone about 60 miles long and 25 miles deep, in which the local population and visitors will be subjected to near total surveillance. The measures, according to security expert Mark Galeotti, include a garrison of about 25,000 special police, 8,000 interior troops, unknown numbers of plainclothes agents, special forces such as the "Alpha" anti-terrorist squad of the FSB (the successor to the KGB), and up to 30,000 regular troops to patrol the nearby borders with Georgia and the breakaway Georgian republic of Abkhazia. The skies will be full of Russian Air Force fighters and at least a dozen drones; ultra-modern S-400 and Pantsir-S anti-aircraft missiles capable of taking down any airborne threat will be deployed around the zone; and four of the Russian Navy's new Grachonok anti-saboteur patrol boats with teams of divers and special sonar equipment will range up and down the coast.

Putin's gamble

The stakes are high for Putin, who has invested Russia's prestige and $51 billion of mostly state cash in hosting the Winter Olympics.

"Putin's personal image is closely connected to the outcome of these Games. So I am absolutely sure that whatever can be done, will be done," says Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB security expert and ex-Duma deputy.

It's not only Putin's international reputation that hangs in the balance. His domestic popularity rests largely on his image as a tough and uncompromising slayer of terrorists.

He arrived in power in autumn 1999 amid a wave of deadly apartment bombings that killed hundreds, and used the public panic over the acts to launch a fresh war against Chechen militants, re-impose strong central government, and greatly beef up Russian security services. Since then, as both president and prime minister, Putin has faced intermittent waves of terrorism which he has often turned to his own advantage. For example, he seized upon the horrific 2004 school siege at Beslan to abolish local elections and further ratchet up the powers of security forces.

But a long lull in serious terrorist attacks against Russia's heartland has been shattered by the Volgograd bombings, and in the nail-biting tensions of the coming weeks and months, Russians will be expecting him to ensure their security.

"This is Putin's basic promise to Russians, that he will make us safe," says Andrei Piontkovsky, a veteran Kremlin critic.

"If we look back over the past 15 years, we can see that he never really kept that pledge. We've been hit over and over again," he says. "But because of the Olympics, the whole world is watching. It may be that the extraordinary concentration of security resources in Sochi means that city is safe, but what about the rest of the country? Even Moscow? If terrorists strike anywhere, it will seriously undermine faith in Putin."

Finding balance

Putin has taken several steps to restore world confidence in the Sochi Olympics, especially after President Barack Obama decided last month that neither he nor any other top US official would be attending the Games. Late last month, the Kremlin amnestied thousands of prisoners, including many of those regarded as "political" in the West. In Sochi last week, he relaxed a ban on all protests at the Games and designated a special area where demonstrations may be held with official permission.

But keeping the Olympics safe – and without suffocating them in omnipresent security measures – is his greatest challenge, say experts.

"One of the purposes of terrorists is to sow uncertainty, ill temper, and chaos," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

"The other side of that coin is the excessive tightening of security measures. This can pose big problems for athletes and spectators. How to secure the Games without creating onerous difficulties for fans – to make the event controllable and calm at the same time – is the biggest issue here. If the balance tips either way, the Games risk being a failure," he says.

Unseen dangers?

Some experts warn that in Russia, where a seething North Caucasus Islamic insurgency has been marked by shifting allegiances, and security services have been accused of murky dealings with terrorist networks, there may be unseen dangers ahead.

Most reports focus on Chechen Islamist warlord Doku Umarov, who is presumably holed up somewhere in the rugged Caucasus Mountains, as the main threat. But Nikolai Petrov, a leading expert on Russia's regional politics and a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, suggests that other forces, including members of pro-Moscow Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov's retinue and rogue elements of Russia's own security services, may have a strong interest in aiding and abetting more acts of terrorism.

"When we examine these recent Volgograd attacks, it's hard not to notice how well planned and well organized they were. They seem to have enjoyed a lot of logistical help," he says. "Kadyrov may have pacified Chechnya, but his funding from Moscow has been falling lately, and he may not expect to be given such a free hand in Chechnya after the Olympics are over. Some officials in the security forces have interests in private companies that provide security for airports and other transport infrastructure, and there are huge profits to be made in this field."

"Terrorism has become a big business, and there are people with a real, material interest in keeping it going," Mr. Petrov adds. "I know how strange this may sound. But we have seen such things before in Russia, and nothing should be taken for granted here."

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