Sochi 2014: A Security Challenge
The Russian city of Sochi will host the 2014 Winter Olympics from Feb. 7 to Feb. 23 and the Paralympics from March 7 to March 16. Russia is no stranger to hosting high-profile global events; it hosted the 1980 Summer Olympics and is preparing for the 2018 World Cup final.
Though the 2014 games seemingly offer Moscow a perfect platform for showcasing the strength of its security apparatus, Russia will have to work overtime to protect athletes and spectators. This in turn could leave surrounding regions such as the Northern Caucasus and major cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg exposed to militancy, terrorism and organized crime. Militants from the Caucasus striking elsewhere in Russia during the games to avoid the intense security that will be present in Sochi and to capitalize on news coverage of the highly publicized event pose the greatest threat to the games.
Russian security forces possess the experience and numbers necessary to provide for safe Olympic Games. They will have an intense multilayered system in place throughout Sochi. The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, or the FSB, is the primary security agency in Russia — it is the successor to the Soviet KGB and the country's chief counterterrorism agency — and has taken the lead in guaranteeing security for the Sochi Olympics since 2010.
The FSB will lead close to 100,000 security personnel in securing the games and Sochi overall. Other elements involved in Olympic security operations will be in place:
- More than 40,000 police are expected to be on duty during the games and will be trained to converse with spectators in three languages other than Russian (English, French and German). They will also have a 24-hour hotline available for assistance.
- Roughly 30,000 members of the armed forces will deploy to the Sochi area.
- A Russian military group dubbed "Operations Group Sochi" is expected to supervise and secure the mountainous belt from Sochi to Mineralnye Vody near the Olympic Mountain Cluster using roughly 10,000 troops.
- Russia's 58th Army will be responsible for securing and supervising the southern border with Georgia.
- Surveillance for the games will include drones, reconnaissance robots, sonar systems and high-speed patrol boats.
- A computer system called Sorm will be upgraded and operational to monitor all Internet and communication traffic by Sochi residents, visiting competitors and spectators during the Olympics in the hopes of intercepting any sensitive information that could help to avoid any potential disruptions.
Moscow has implemented extensive security measures on land, on the Black Sea and in the air. In January 2014, there will be travel and transport restrictions implemented along with enhanced security zones, to include restricted and controlled zones that will be designated throughout the region using signs and authorities on post. Restricted security zones will cover a large territory outside the internal border of Karachay-Cherkessia (more than 322 kilometers, or 200 miles, east of Sochi) and the external border between Russia's Krasnodar Krai region and the breakaway Georgian territory of Abkhazia. Also included will be the Olympic Park and its Olympic venues, Olympic Villages in the Olympic Mountain Cluster and Olympic Coastal Cluster, as well as Sochi's seaport, railroad terminal, airport and national park. To move through checkpoints in these zones, one will have to produce both a ticket and a spectator pass or fan passport (acquired by providing personal and biographical information to the Russian government through the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee) or Olympic accreditation.
Even so, areas remain vulnerable to potential disruption. Attempted attacks are likeliest at venues containing large, concentrated numbers of participants, such as the Olympic Park in the heart of the Olympic Coastal Cluster and perhaps the Adler/Sochi airport. Open venues at the games will also be attractive targets, including the venues that make up the Olympic Mountain Cluster, where snowboarding and skiing events will be held. They are located in Krasnaya Polyana and are accessible by bus, high-speed rail and helicopter. Other potential targets include the transportation hubs in Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana, as well as the high-speed rail link connecting the Olympic Coastal Cluster to the Olympic Mountain Cluster.
Controlled zones where all visitors and vehicles will undergo police inspections include the areas surrounding Olympic Park and checkpoints along the Sochi and Adler coast, including Matsesta and Khosta. As in the restricted zones, those equipped with a spectator pass will be permitted to attend events during the Olympics, and all motor vehicles will need a permit provided by the Sochi Olympics Transport Administration to enter Sochi before and during the games.
Security in Sochi and at all Olympic venues clearly will be comprehensive. This means that the greatest threat in the run-up to and during the games will likely be an attack carried out by militants outside of Sochi in locations such as the North Caucasus or large metropolitan areas like Moscow.
Russia's struggle with volatile regions like the Caucasus dates back centuries. For years, Russia has dealt a heavy counterinsurgency blow to the Caucasus — particularly the Northern Caucasus, which is home to fundamentalist separatist insurgencies spawned during the first and second Chechen wars and to militant groups like the Caucasus Emirate. Militant groups in the region carry out regular attacks against security forces and government officials using a multitude of different tactics, including targeted assassinations and suicide bombings.
Caucasus militants remain a tactical threat to Russian security, having carried out effective attacks inside the Caucasus — particularly Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, as well as the Russian heartland — that mainly target Russian police and soft targets like mosques, shopping malls and transportation hubs throughout the region. In May 2012, Russian authorities foiled a plot orchestrated by the leader of the Caucasus Emirate militant group, Doku Umarov, to attack the Sochi Olympics. Officials discovered a weapons cache in Abkhazia that included portable surface-to-air missiles, grenade launchers, flamethrowers, grenades, rifles and maps (the contents of which have not yet been reported). Three members of the Caucasus Emirate were detained. Authorities said the weapons were to be smuggled into Sochi for use before and during the games.
In July 2013, Umarov made threats in a video posted on YouTube calling on people from the Caucasus (specifically Islamic insurgents in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and the Northern Caucasus) to stop Russia from holding the Sochi Olympics. The video suggests that the group may be low on manpower, as has been reported, and that the extensive security measures in place may prevent Umarov and the Caucasus Emirate from attacking the Sochi Olympics.
Umarov's video could indeed inspire lone wolves in the region to carry out attacks in Sochi, but elsewhere in Russia as well. Attacks by lone wolves, or "grassroots" jihadists, are particularly difficult to intercept and prevent. The actors behind these attacks, however, usually lack the sophistication needed to carry out a large-scale operation, especially in a country with well-prepared security forces.
While Umarov did not indicate the types of attacks to attempt, bombings have been the most popular attack method in the Caucasus region, followed by armed assaults, according to the Institute for the Study of Violent Groups. More than 1,500 violent events have occurred in the Caucasus region since January 2010, with a majority of them targeting law enforcement and occurring within 500 miles of the Olympic Games in areas such as Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Chechnya.
On Oct. 21, a female suicide bomber attacked a bus in Volgograd, Russia, 600 miles north of Sochi, killing six and wounding more than a dozen. While this event was not directly related to the Olympics, it underscores the ability of lone wolves and militants to attack soft targets like busy city squares and airports using limited training and materials, whether in Sochi or elsewhere in Russia.
In recent months, Russia has implemented several preventive measures to counter such attacks. In May, according to the Interior Ministry, Russian President Vladimir Putin forbade the sale of weapons, ammunitions, explosives and poisonous substances inside the Olympic restricted zones. In August, he signed a decree banning demonstrations and rallies not part of the Olympics or the Paralympics in Sochi from Jan. 7 to March 21. In October, Russian authorities took saliva samples from Muslim women in Dagestan so authorities could better identify their body parts if any became suicide bombers during the games. And in November, Putin signed a new anti-terrorism law that requires relatives to pay for any damage caused by militants and imposes a prison term of up to 10 years for anyone undergoing terrorism training aimed at carrying out an attack in Russia.
It will be very difficult to conduct an attack at an Olympic venue or during any major event in Sochi, but even a small assault would have an outsized effect given the global spotlight on the games. Meanwhile, the Olympics are a prime opportunity for thieves and other criminals to prey upon unsuspecting tourists.
Advisory to Olympic Visitors and Spectators
Although Russia will deploy more than 40,000 police at the Olympics (double the entire security deployment at the London 2012 Olympics) and will operate surveillance cameras, drones and reconnaissance robots, street crime will remain an issue. Athletes, spectators and sponsors at Olympic venues are all potential victims for local criminals. Precautions should be taken against pickpocketing, robbery or assault, both in Sochi and across Russia. Maintaining situational awareness at all times is key to minimizing risks of all kind. With the elevated police presence, crime at the Olympic venues will probably be relatively low. For the purposes of comparison, crime at the London Olympics and Paralympics dropped by 6 percent, according to estimates by the London Metropolitan Police. The Sochi Olympics could see a similar outcome.
Extreme delays at airports, buses and rail regarding transportation to the Olympic games, as well as shortages of hotel accommodations, are expected. Visitors are urged to book hotel rooms and travel reservations well in advance. An Olympic express train will transport passengers from the Olympic Coastal Cluster located in Adler to the Olympic Mountain Cluster in Krasnaya Polyana with an expected travel time of just over 30 minutes; trains are scheduled to run every hour. Ski lifts and buses will be used to shuttle fans to individual Olympic venues in the Olympic Mountain Cluster. Once inside the Olympic Coastal Cluster, Olympic venues like the Olympic Medal Plaza and Fisht Olympic Stadium are within walking distance. Many Olympic-related events will take place in downtown Sochi, which is located roughly 24 miles from Adler and is accessible by bus and car.
Tickets must be purchased from an authorized seller, so buyers should be alert for ticket scammers, including websites posing as official ticket producers. Spectators must also obtain a spectator's pass. The application process is part of the security regimen for the games and will subject the ticket holder to a background check administered by the FSB. All foreign visitors attending the Olympics will also need to apply for a tourist visa before entering Russia. In the past, Russia’s visa procedure and processing has been complicated and lengthy; therefore, foreign visitors with Olympic tickets will be able to use special “Olympic windows” at Russian embassies and consulates around the world that will potentially lessen the hassle visa seekers normally experience.
Sochi has a handful of medical facilities, such as the new hospital in Krasnaya Polyana and Hospital No. 4 in Sochi. Visitors seeking immediate medical care during the games should go to either hospital. Because of land barriers in Russia, Olympic visitors may be better off seeking medical care in neighboring Europe than in Moscow, and should therefore purchase medical evacuation coverage when acquiring traveler's medical insurance before visiting Russia.
Hosting events like the Olympics and Paralympics is an extraordinary task for any country. The extreme security apparatus being put in place will go far in protecting the games against any attacks. However, a wide range of disruptions could happen not only in Sochi, but throughout Russia — including everything from travel delays, street crime and potential attacks.