Fortress Sochi: Russia’s Security Plan Risks Killing the Olympic Spirit

Facing the clear threat of terrorism, the Sochi Winter Olympics will take place amid an unprecedented security lockdown that may make the experience of the quadrennial event far from cheerful for fans and athletes

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Kazbek Basayev / Reuters

Russian police officers sit on a bus at an access road near venues at the Olympic Park in Sochi, Russia, on Jan. 7, 2014

On Jan. 7, as Orthodox Christians across Russia marked the birth of Jesus on their religious calendar, residents of the Russian city of Sochi got an odd Christmas gift from their government. A special security regime, amounting in essence to martial law, went into effect that morning in preparation for the Olympic Games to be held in Sochi next month. More than 30,000 police officers and Interior Ministry troops (equal to roughly 10% of the city’s population) will put Sochi and its suburbs on lockdown over the next two months in the hope of preventing a terrorist attack during the Games. They may succeed. But by sealing off the city, the state has shown that the terrorists have already managed to taint the mood of these Olympics with fear.

“It is certainly not an atmosphere of celebration here,” says Vladimir Kimaev, a local businessman and environmental activist. “It’s more a feeling of resignation to wait this thing out and then get on with life.” Kimaev’s transport business, which picks up and delivers trucks and other heavy machinery in the area, has already been forced to close up shop until the end of March, when the security regime will be lifted. The Games themselves will last from Feb. 7 to Feb. 23. But in the Kremlin decree that imposed the Olympic precautions, President Vladimir Putin ordered them to last two months longer, just in case, from Jan. 7 to March 21.

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In modern Olympic history, the restriction of movement in and around Sochi will be unprecedented. Any Russian citizens planning to drive to the Games, or simply visit Sochi during the security regime, will be forced to leave their cars outside of the massive seclusion zone set up around the city and its suburbs. Inside Sochi, officials are discouraging residents from driving at all, and police have been given the right to conduct spot searches and confiscate legally registered firearms and ammunition for the duration of the Olympic security regime. The sale of a long list of poisonous or intoxicating substances has also been banned in Sochi during this period, specifically including snake venom, methyl alcohol and derivatives of the kava plant, according to Putin’s decree.

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But experts are split over whether such measures would be an effective deterrent for terrorists. In the past two months, three suicide bombings have struck in the nearby city of Volgograd, killing at least 40 people and injuring dozens more. Two of those attacks took place within 24 hours of each other, and even though no one has taken responsibility for them, investigators say they trace back to the terrorist groups in Russia’s North Caucasus region, which lies a short drive from Sochi.

Yulia Yuzik, an expert on suicide bombers from that region, points out that these groups have had more than six years to prepare an attack against the Sochi Olympics, ever since the city won the rights to host the Games in 2007. “Many of them have been waiting for this moment to hit Putin where it hurts,” she says, and they have had plenty of time to set up sleeper cells in Sochi that would be nearly impossible to distinguish from normal residents. Moreover, after each of the recent attacks in Volgograd, security in that city was ramped up dramatically, and it was clearly not enough to stop whoever orchestrated those bombings. “These groups are highly professional and very determined,” Yuzik says. “So if the security regime in Sochi is a deterrent for anyone, it is for the regular fans who would have liked to attend the Games.”

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Still, the heightened security has at least managed to turn Sochi into a “hard target,” says Pavel Baev, an expert on the region at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, a think tank based in the Norwegian capital. In particular, the blanket surveillance of phone calls and online communications in and around Sochi would make it very difficult, he says, to coordinate an attack inside the city. But that will come at a substantial price for the comfort of the athletes and fans. “For both groups, the security conditions in Sochi will come as something of a shock,” Baev says, like trying to maintain the Olympic spirit inside a “besieged fortress.”

Over the past few years, Sochi’s residents have watched the walls of that fortress go up around them, as the presence of federal troops and security services has gradually intensified. So there is little about the Christmas cordon that could come as a shock to them, Baev adds. Speaking by phone from Sochi, Kimaev agrees. This morning, police started checking documents and searching cars at random, and there was much confusion on the roads near Olympic venues as drivers were turned away by the armed troops manning the checkpoints. “But people took it calmly,” Kimaev says. “Of course we’re tired. Everybody’s tired. But people realize that these measures are justified. The threat is real, and we just have to get through these last couple of months.” So for many residents of this Olympic city, the closing ceremony, not the opening one, will be the real reason to celebrate.

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