Sochi toothpaste alert: Russia receives US warnings with hint of annoyance

DHS has warned that terrorists might try to hide explosives inside toothpaste tubes aboard airliners headed for Russia. Last month, however, Russia banned all liquids and gels, including toothpaste, from carry-on luggage entering Russian airports.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Russian security forces patrol the streets as preparations continue for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Rosa Khutor February 6, 2014.

It might be too much to call it the Sochi toothpaste wars.

But US government warnings that terrorists might be planning to bring down airliners headed for Russia and the Sochi Olympics by hiding explosives inside toothpaste tubes are being received by Russia with a hint of annoyance.

One Russian source, the Voice of Russia, likened Wednesday’s warning – issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to US and foreign-based airlines operating flights to Russia – to other “bizarre” warnings it said America is known for issuing.

The examples the Russian government’s international news service cited are warnings to microwave users not to use the appliance for drying pets, and to hot-beverage consumers that their beverage might actually be hot.

“The US is well-known for issuing bizarre warnings, like ‘caution, hot’ or ‘do not use for drying pets,’ ” the Voice of Russia said Thursday, adding that “now the warning is linked to the possible danger lurking in toothpaste tubes.”

Russian security officials also responded to the new US warning by pointing out that Russia is in fact ahead of the game when it comes to potential toothpaste-tube threats. Last month Russia banned all liquids and gels, including toothpaste, from carry-on luggage entering Russian airports, they noted.

The DHS warning to airlines said the hidden explosives could be used either to assemble a bomb onboard or to smuggle explosives onto Russian soil. Counterterrorism officials and several congressional lawmakers said the warning is based on recent and serious intelligence.

Michael McCaul (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said on CNN that the threat is based on “very specific and credible information.”

Reports out of Europe Thursday suggested that a number of arrests had been made in France and Austria based on the same intelligence prompting the US warning. According to those reports, however, all the individuals arrested were later released without charges.

The intense international scrutiny of security preparations at the Sochi Games – whose opening ceremonies are Friday – was to be expected: Sochi sits on the edge of a region of sustained terrorist activity carried out by Islamist extremists, and last month saw deadly suicide bombings in nearby Volgograd.

But a press conference in Sochi Thursday, Russia's deputy prime minister, Dmitry Kozak, said that international media have exaggerated the security threat to the Games and that Russian intelligence suggests Sochi is as safe as any city in the world.

"The level of fear should be lower," he said, adding, "The level of threat in Sochi is no worse than in New York, Washington, or Boston."

Yet Russian officials have also extolled the international cooperation they say has enhanced the Games’ security – even as they insist that Russian preparations for a safe Olympics are second to none.

During a tour of the Olympic Village on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked “colleagues from all countries for their most active cooperation” in the task of ensuring secure Olympics. A number of countries have representatives of their intelligence agencies working alongside their Russian counterparts in the Sochi Games’ security headquarters, he said.

But Mr. Putin apparently could not pass up the opportunity to point out that the best-laid security preparations have not always thwarted terrorist attacks at “major international events.”

“People were killed at a marathon in the US,” he said, referring to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, “and there were terrorist attacks on the London Underground during a G8 summit” in 2005, he added.

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