Russia sent troops across Dagestan today as the government pressed an offensive against insurgents and new threats emerged less than three weeks before the Winter Olympics kick off in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Two counter-terrorism operations were under way in Dagestan, a Muslim-majority region on the Caspian, east of Sochi, said Alexander Polyakov, a spokesman for the National Anti-Terrorist Committee. Russian forces also embarked on a third mission, with an insurgent leader killed in a shootout, Interfax reported, citing unidentified security officials.
Russian authorities are pushing to dispel concerns about deteriorating security in the region before the games in Sochi begin Feb. 7. The operations in Dagestan come on the heels of renewed threats against the Olympics made in a video released three days ago by Islamic extremists, who also claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Volgograd that killed more than 30 people last month.
“As you understand, such videos do attract attention,” Polyakov said by phone, adding that security experts were studying the recording. He said he couldn’t comment on a Fox News report that Russia and U.S. security forces are searching for four potential female terrorists in Sochi.
Speaking in an interview with foreign and domestic media recorded in Sochi Jan. 17, President Vladimir Putin said “we will do our best” to prevent a terrorist attack at the Olympics. The authorities are taking “sufficient measures” to protect the event, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow today.
Such expressions of confidence have done little to allay fears among ordinary Russians, according to a poll released today by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, or VTsIOM. The government was probably or definitely incapable of safeguarding the population from new terror attacks, according to 63 percent of the respondents. That’s the most since 2011, the state-run pollster said.
Among those surveyed, 78 percent said Russia should fight terrorism “only by eliminating the terrorists” and not through negotiations. The poll of 1,600 people was conducted Jan. 11-12 and had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
The U.S. State Department issued a travel alert on Jan. 10 for Americans planning to travel to Sochi for the Olympics and Paralympic Games in February and March. The U.S. military is drafting contingency plans for the events, according to Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
“The United States has offered its full support to the Russian government as it conducts security preparations for the Winter Olympics,” he said in a statement yesterday. “Air and naval assets, to include two Navy ships in the Black Sea, will be available if requested for all manner of contingencies in support of -- and in consultation with -- the Russian government. There is no such requirement at this time.”
While the Olympics have added a new urgency to Russia’s two-decade-long campaign to put down an insurgency in the North Caucasus, the security crackdown risks further radicalizing the groups resisting federal forces, according to Tatyana Lokshina, program director in Moscow for Human Rights Watch, which today released a review of Russia as part of its World Report 2014.
An increase in abductions and the use of violent tactics by the authorities in Dagestan is damaging dialogue with local communities, creating fertile ground for Islamic insurgents to recruit new members, Lokshina said.
“As the Olympic Games in Sochi were approaching, the Kremlin became increasingly concerned with continuous violence in Dagestan, and wanted fast results,” she said. “So its soft power tactics were replaced with the use of brutal force.”
Russia is “using many forces and means” in Sochi, limiting the movement of people and goods in the region starting on Jan. 7, Putin said in the interview. Russia is spending about 1.5 trillion rubles ($45 billion) to stage the games, making them the costliest Winter Olympics on record.
“We will protect our air and sea space, as well as the mountain cluster,” Putin said. “I hope that it will be arranged so that it will not be evident and, as I have already said, will not depress the participants in the Olympic Games.”
Sochi lies to the west of the Caucasus mountains, which stretch about 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) across Chechnya to Dagestan, one of Russia’s most economically distressed regions. Chechen rebels fought two wars against the federal government since 1994. The separatist movement grew into an Islamist insurgency that took its fight to neighboring provinces.
In a video posted on YouTube on Jan. 18, two Russian-speaking men identified as members of a militant group operating in Iraq are shown preparing explosives and promising “presents” for Putin and tourists during the Olympics.
Eldar Magatov, who was identified as a leader of an insurgent group in the Babayurt district, was killed during one of the operations in Dagestan today, Interfax reported, citing the National Anti-Terrorist Committee. A homemade bomb uncovered near a government building in a Dagestani village was safely defused, state-run RIA Novosti reported.
Three suspected extremists were shot dead yesterday in the regional capital of Makhachkala, according to the news service, two days after another seven militants including a woman being prepared for a suicide bombing were killed on the city’s outskirts.
“Town leaders, imams at mosques, people of other confessions -- they should all be united in the fight against extremism and terrorism,” Ramazan Abdulatipov, head of Dagestan, said at a Jan. 17 government meeting. “Because that’s the most important thing today. If we defeat extremism and terrorism, nothing will stand in the way of the region’s normal recovery.”