For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the 2014 Winter Olympics Games in Sochi will provide an excellent opportunity to showcase his resurgent Russia in the best light possible. However, much has happened to prevent that goal from being achieved. Within Russia, concerns have mounted over the cost for hosting the Olympic Games, with some estimates stating it has surpassed $50 billion. Outside of Russia, there has been a significant, negative reaction to Putin signing a law in June 2013, banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” and imposing fines on those holding gay pride rallies. Several world leaders have responded by declining to attend the Games, including US President Barack Obama, whose relationship with Putin remains less than congenial. However, both in Russia and worldwide, all with interest in the Games, are concerned with security at the event given the most recent terrorist attacks in Volgograd, some 690 km northeast of the Sochi Olympic Park. Of all of the issues that have arose, Putin has been most responsive to the attacks. In his televised New Year address, Putin stated, “We will confidently, fiercely and consistently continue the fight against terrorists until their complete annihilation.” For the Russian people, any statement less forceful than that from Putin would have been unexpected and unacceptable. There is an issue, however, over the degree to which Putin will actually retaliate for the attacks. Moreover, it is uncertain that any action against the terrorist group allegedly responsible will prevent new attacks before or during the Games. Perhaps a key factor in the organization of a significant response by the Russian government is timing.
There were two terrorist attacks in Volgograd in December 2013. On December 29th, a suicide bomber detonated explosives inside a crowded railway station, killing at least 17 and wounding many others. On December 30th, another bomber detonated explosives on an electric trolleybus, killing 14 and critically wounding several more. An Investigative Committee spokesperson stated identical explosives were used in both bombings, establishing a link between them. The attacks in Volgograd came on top of a number of other terrorist enumerated by the Russian law enforcement officials in the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District. Volgograd was also targeted in October 2013 when a suspected female suicide bomber killed six people on a bus. While nobody claimed responsibility for the December attacks either through a message or manifesto to authorities, the violence underscored Russia’s vulnerability to insurgents more than a decade after it drove separatists from power in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya during Putin’s first term. The insurgents suspected, from the group Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), say they are fighting to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia that includes Sochi. In a video posted online in July, the group’s Chechen-born leader, Doku Umarov, called for “maximum force” to prevent Russia from staging the Games.
While the Games will go on as planned and nations will send their teams to compete, the Volgograd attacks have still had a strong effect on the psyche of the Russian people and on Putin himself. Given the increased sense of patriotism and nationalism found among the Russian people, most are proud of the fact the Games are being held in Russia and are hoping for a successful event. However, those hopes have been moderated by fears that more attacks will occur before the Games start. They are relying on Putin’s reputation for being a strong leader and very capable of responding firmly on security issues. They are relying upon him to guarantee the Games will be a glorious occasion for them. Putin, himself, is certainly unintimidated by terrorists from Russia or anywhere else. However, having dedicated a great amount of government resources, especially from the security services, to the Games, and being fully aware of his reputation as a strong leader, for Putin, the attacks were a personal affront. The attacks appear to discredit his effort to prove Russia is on the rise again and suffering the fate of lesser states. For that, he will be unforgiving. With the leaders of other world powers absent, at Sochi, Putin would have the spotlight to himself on the world stage. What a tragic figure Putin would be, if he had to stand alone at the Olympic Park, explaining a devastating terrorist attack.
Under the circumstances, Putin must thoroughly respond to the attacks. To some degree, the security services have acted. When cars, stores, homes, and marketplaces are bombed, Russian Interior Ministry (MVD) and Federal Security Service (FSB) troops surround the homes of suspected militants and pull them out for arrest. It has been said that those troops have bombed homes when relatives have refused to turn suspects over. After the Volgograd attacks, 4000 policemen were dispatched to Volgograd, placing over 5,200 on the ground for what Russian authorities called an “Anti-Terrorism Whirlwind.” Over 1,500 buildings were searched and more than 1,000 people were searched. Several dozen have been detained for resisting arrests for not having documents allowing them to carry weapons. The internal troops (VV) of the Ministry of Interior have already been heavily engaged in operations in North Caucasus. Those VV units that genuinely conduct operations are from the ten Independent Special Designation Brigades (OBrON). These specialized forces fight local rebels and control protests. The short-term, specific operations OBrON carry out differentiate the VV forces from the regular army, which is trained and equipped to fight long-term conflicts. Such services provided by the VV are not without cost. Whenever people have been arrested and interrogated, policemen are often killed in retaliation.
Putin is dedicated to preventing any further terrorist attacks. It is uncertain that any response against the group allegedly responsible will prevent future attacks before or during the Games. The raids undertaken, although significant, were not as robust as might have been expected given the likely desperation and paranoia felt among security service officials over a possible Sochi attack. However, federal district wide, large scale operations weeks before the Games will mar them, and erase any impression that Sochi is safe to visit. Putin’s entire investment of Russia’s resources would be wasted. Moreover, a full-scale attack upon terrorist groups now may lead to a full-scale nihilistic response from them. That type of conflict, regardless of whether Russian authorities might destroy the terrorist groups in the process, could lead to a drastic decision by the International Olympic Committee to cancel, postpone, or relocate the Games.
It is very likely sophisticated technical means to monitor the movements and activities of individuals and groups, likely to engage in terrorist acts, has been on-going. Hitting those groups may disrupt those monitoring efforts, by destroying leads before they yield their potential. That would be counter-intuitive. Losing lines into to those groups now would create major security problems. (If the attackers in Volgograd were completely off the radar, that likely created a conundrum for Russian security officials. The attackers operations would have been pre-planned. They would have been set up to move independently on specific dates, times, and locations without the communication of orders. To defeat such attacks, anti-terrorism efforts must peak just before the Games begin and remain heightened until they end to defeat lone operatives.)
A better time for the security services to strike against suspected terrorist groups would be just days before the opening ceremonies or during Sochi. Communications must be destroyed or disrupted. There must be confusion and chaos within the leadership. The groups must stand rudderless. The strikes must be of sufficent strength to prevent the groups from resurrecting themselves enough to conduct any operations during the Games. Strikes of this nature would likely be executed swiftly and covertly against terrorist elements being monitored. Very capable special service troops would most likely be called upon to carry out such a task. Of the many special service groups established in Russia, the most well-known and respected are Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group) and Directorate V of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Vympel). Alpha Group, an elite stand alone sub unit of Russia’s special services, is a dedicated counter-terrorism task force of the FSB. It primarily prevents and responds to violent acts in public transportation and buildings. Vympel is officially tasked with protecting Russia’s strategic installations, however it is also available for extended police duties, paramilitary applications, and covert operations in Russia or abroad. The profile and capabilities of both units have increased, and they have taken over and consolidated roles and personnel from other organizations. During the Soviet era, Alpha Group acquired a reputation for using ruthless methods in response to terrorist acts. In Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God (Georgetown University Press, 2013), Matthew Levitt recounts different versions of how Soviet authorities used Alpha Group in response to the 1985 kidnappings of four Soviet diplomats in Beirut, Lebanon. After one of the Soviet hostages was shot and dumped near a stadium in West Beirut, Alpha Group sought the help of Druze informants to identify the kidnappers, their clans, and their families. One account has Alpha Group kidnapping a relative of the hostage taking organization, cutting off his ear, and sending it to his family. In another account, Alpha Group abducted one of the kidnapper’s brothers and sent two of his fingers home to his family in separate envelopes. A third version has Alpha Group kidnapping a dozen individuals tied to the kidnapping group, one of them being a relative of its leader. The relative was castrated, shot in head, had his testicles stuffed in his mouth, and shipped to the group with a letter promising a similar fate for the eleven other captives if the Soviet hostages were not released. That same evening, the three diplomats, in bad condition, appeared at the gates of the Soviet embassy.
There is also the possibility that Russian authorities may utilize their most capable assets in response to the terrorist attacks. In his book Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces Since 1991 (Osprey, 2013), Mark Galeotti of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs discusses Zaslon (Barrier), a special services group not officially recognized by the Russian government. Zaslon personnel are said to be former spetsnaz troops and serve under the sole command of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) headquarters in Yasenevo, on the outskirts of Moscow. Galeotti explains that Zaslon has been linked with everything from assassinations abroad to gathering up documents and technology that the Russian government did not want the US to seize when Baghdad fell. In Syria, Galeotti suspects Zaslon may be providing additional support for Russian military and diplomatic personnel, and would likely be ordered to extract people, documents, or technologies Russia would not want to share if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to collapse. As part of Putin’s full court press on security for Sochi, Zaslon has likely already been included among those special services units called in to provide both anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism capabilities. An outstanding scholar at the University of Utrecht, Ralph Ladestein, shared a picture with greatcharlie.com in November 2013 that, as he explained, showed Russian special service troops in Syria. The picture is below.
Are these Zaslon troops operating in Syria? The message written on the wall of the structure in the background (translated by Ladestein) reads, “Syria for Assad!”
By the end of the Games, it is possible that so much information will have been gathered as a result of the concentration of security resources to the anti-terrorism effort that new, more effective operations against terrorist groups could simply be conducted by MVD and FSB. Necessity could lead to the consideration of innovative approaches toward blunting the capabilities of the terrorists perhaps by using precision strikes with military firepower and directed attacks by special service troops. Some new ideas may come as a result of Russian security officials working closely with foreign security officials from participating states. After examining the situation in the North Caucasus, those foreign security officials may likely offer suggestions on how lessons from their own experiences in counter-terrorism to could be applied to reduce or defeat any security threats. Additionally, with the Games over, Putin will have the flexibility to respond to the terrorists on a far larger scale if he chooses
If after the closing ceremonies, Sochi is known for being the Black Sea resort on the edge of the Caucasus Mountain range where the 2014 Winter Olympic Games were superbly organized, the Russian people will be very satisfied. If after the Games, an impressed world audience has a sense that Russia is a world power on the rise again, with great capabilities and possibilities, Putin would be elated. However, if a terrorist attack is attempted or successfully carried out in Sochi, for Russia, it will be a disaster. Russia will be viewed as a questionable choice by the International Olympic Committee for the Games and the country’s reputation for being stifled by authoritarianism, insecurity and uncertainty will endure.
Despite personal or political views of Putin and his decisions regarding the Winter Olympic Games, no one should have any interest in seeing Sochi struck by a terrorist attack. Anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism by the Russian security services should be supported by all states, including the US. While security officials of the US, EU, and other countries may liaise and provide some assistance, everything possible should be done to prevent an attack, including the supply of personnel and technical resources. A secure and successful event would not only be in Russia’s interest, but also the transnational interest.