A week after three terrorist bombings rocked Russia, Vladimir Putin went skiing. The Russian leader’s 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.
That may be so: security experts are pretty confident that Putin’s police will manage to seal off the mountain-fringed Black Sea resort town of 343,000, shielding the bobsled runs, ski-jump courses, the athletes’ village and the high-end hotels.
Putin will have a more difficult time to make his Jan. 3 hit-the-slopes message carry far beyond Sochi. It didn’t get through to whoever was responsible for the six bullet-riddled bodies found in abandoned cars last week. The incident less than an hour’s flight from next month’s Olympic venue continued a wave of violence.
“This is extremely important for Russia’s self-image and the image it wants to project in the world,” said Keir Giles, an associate fellow at Chatham House in London. “I would be very surprised if there weren’t an increase in the number of attempts, because it it’s a golden opportunity.”
Security will be part of the spectacle in Sochi. In addition to 30,000 police and soldiers, 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’s 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 $48 billion to stage the winter games. The Feb. 7-23 event ranks with the 2018 soccer World Cup as an opportunity for Putin to advertise to the world that his re-energized country 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 himself have struggled to subdue for more than two centuries.
Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the heavily Muslim region -- Russia’s soft underbelly of mountainous terrain 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, the home of rebels behind a 2002 Moscow theater hostage-taking that killed 130 people and a 2004 school seizure in the Northern Caucasus that left 334 people dead, including 186 children.
Smaller-scale skirmishes rage daily between Russian forces and separatists, with shootings, kidnappings, car bombings and the like that rarely make international headlines. That changed on Dec. 27 when a blast killed three people in Pyatigorsk, about 273 kilometers (170 miles) east of Sochi.
Six people linked to the incident were detained Jan. 10, Russia’s anti-terrorist authority said. The suspects, including an Azeri citizen, confessed their involvement and information gleaned from them helped foil another attack, it said. Five suspects, described as members of an “international terrorist organization,” were detained Jan. 11 in the southern region of Kabardino-Balkaria, according to the RIA news service.
On Dec. 29, the scene shifted to closer to the Russian heartland. Suicide bombings on two successive days killed more than 30 in Volgograd, about halfway between Sochi and Moscow. It was a double-barreled strike at a historic symbol of Russian resilience, the city where the Red Army stopped the Wehrmacht in 1943 when it was known as Stalingrad.
“Sochi may be a well-protected fortress, but the rest of southern Russia is wide open,” said Michael Emerson, a former European Union envoy to Russia who is now with the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. “With any more Volgograds the message is that Putin cannot control his Russia.”
Police raided about 6,000 buildings in the Volgograd region, including more than 2,500 homes, and detained more than 700 people in response to the two-day rampage and Putin ordered a country-wide increase in security. A law enforcement official quoted by Interfax said the bombers may have operated out of the Northern Caucasus.
Striking the same commandeering tone as after prior attacks on the authority of the Russian state, Putin vowed revenge. In his New Year’s Eve address on national television, the Russian president pledged to “remain confident, tough and consistent in our fight to destroy the terrorists completely.”
The landmass of the world’s largest country, countless lower-grade targets and the chronic inefficiency and corruption of its security forces make that pledge virtually impossible to fulfill. The script may be provided by the dual suicide bombings at Moscow subway stations that killed 38 people in March 2010.
“The greatest risk is at softer targets around southern Russia, in particular transport infrastructure, markets and shopping centers,” Matthew Clements, principal Russia analyst at IHS Country Risk in London, said by e-mail. “This threat also extends to major cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg.”
In the Stavropol region east of Sochi investigators searched for clues in the parked cars that became tombs for the six people murdered on Jan. 8. An explosive device planted near one of the vehicles blew up without causing further injuries, and police defused a second homemade bomb near another car.
Law enforcement officials identified three suspects, all from the neighboring mainly Muslim Kabardino-Balkaria region, two of whom were wanted for previous crimes, Interfax reported.
“These crimes are a challenge to the authorities and security structures,” the region’s acting governor, Vladimir Vladimirov, said. “Their aim is to create a tense atmosphere and to provoke fear and conflict in society.”
To contact the reporter on this story: James G. Neuger in Brussels at firstname.lastname@example.org