A week after three terrorist bombings rocked Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin went skiing. His slalom at Sochi, set to host the Winter Olympics next month, was meant to show that athletes and fans at the snow sports extravaganza will have nothing to fear.
Security experts are pretty confident that Putin’s police will manage to seal off the mountain-fringed Black Sea resort town, shielding the bobsled runs, ski-jump courses, the athletes’ village and the high-end hotels from when the Games start on Feb. 7 until they end on Feb. 23 .
However, Putin will have a more difficult time making his message heard beyond Sochi. It did not get through to whoever was responsible for the six bullet-riddled bodies found in abandoned cars last week in the Stavropol region, less than an hour’s flight from the Olympic venue.
“This is extremely important for Russia’s self-image and the image it wants to project in the world,” Chatham House associate fellow Keir Giles said from London. “I would be very surprised if there weren’t an increase in the number of attempts, because it’s a golden opportunity.”
Security will be part of the spectacle in Sochi. In addition to 30,000 police and soldiers, news agency RIA Novosti reported that more than 400 Cossacks in traditional uniform will be on patrol, evoking the military pomp of the tsarist era.
Sochi is a prestige project for Putin, who has made restoring Russian might his goal since ascending to the presidency on New Year’s Eve 1999. Russia has already set one Olympic record by spending at least US$48 billion to stage the Winter Games. Along with the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the event is a chance for Putin to show the world that Russia knows how to put on a good show.
That makes the quadrennial athletic pageant just as tempting for Putin’s opponents, especially in the North Caucasus region near Sochi that the tsars, the Soviets and now Putin have struggled to subdue for more than two centuries.
Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the heavily Muslim region stretching from the Black to the Caspian seas has been a hotbed of guerrilla warfare and separatism.
Russia fought two wars to gain control over Chechnya and smaller-scale skirmishes rage daily between Russian forces and separatists, but rarely make global headlines. That changed on Dec. 27 last year when a blast killed three people in Pyatigorsk, about 273km east of Sochi.
Six people linked to the incident were detained on Friday and confessed their involvement, Russia’s anti-terrorist authority said, adding that information gleaned from them helped foil another attack.
On Dec. 29, the scene shifted to closer to the Russian heartland when suicide bombings on two successive days killed more than 30 in Volgograd, about halfway between Sochi and Moscow.
“Sochi may be a well-protected fortress, but the rest of southern Russia is wide open,” said Michael Emerson, a former EU envoy to Russia now with the Centre for European Policy Studies. “With any more Volgograds the message is that Putin cannot control his Russia.”
Police raided about 6,000 buildings in the Volgograd region and detained more than 700 people in response to the rampage, as Putin ordered an increase in security and pledged to “remain confident, tough and consistent in our fight to destroy the terrorists completely.”