The Biggest Olympic Security Risk May Not Be at Sochi

Police officers guard the Volgograd main railway station on Dec. 30 Photograph by Denis Tyrin/AP Photo

Russia is promising extraordinary measures to ensure the safety of athletes and spectators at the Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. But as two deadly bombings in southern Russia have made clear, protecting people as they travel to the games could pose a much tougher challenge.

Suicide bombers on Dec. 29 and Dec. 30 killed more than 30 people at a train station and on a trolley in the southern Russian city of Volgograd. “The attack demonstrates the militants’ capability to strike at soft targets such as transport infrastructure,” says Matthew Clements, a security expert at IHS in London. Although Russian authorities may be able to protect Sochi itself, “there is a greater risk to transport targets around cities in southern Russia, and even Moscow itself.”

Protecting visitors enroute to the Games from Feb. 7 to Feb. 23 could require beefed-up security at locations far away from Sochi. Unless they arrive on charter or private flights, foreign visitors can’t fly directly to Sochi, as the local airport has no service to destinations outside the former Soviet Union. Most scheduled flights arrive from Moscow and St. Petersburg. Trains to Sochi pass through dozens of Russian cities—including Volgograd, which is 700 kilometers (435 miles) northeast of the Olympic site.

The attacks in Volgograd, as well as a suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in 2011, have underscored weaknesses in standard security measures at public transport hubs. People entering the Volgograd train station had to pass through a metal detector, but the bomb was detonated outside the station. Likewise, the bombing at Domodedovo, which killed 37, took place in an international arrival hall outside the airport’s secured area.

Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov, who claimed responsibility for the Domodedovo bombing, called last July for militants to target the Sochi games. In October, six people died in a bombing on a bus in Volgograd. Even before that, the choice of Sochi was “criticized for security reasons,” Georgi Engelhardt, a research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said in a commentary published today in the newsletter Moscow Defense Brief. “The city is situated close to the parts of the North Caucasus that have long been regarded as the home turf of jihadist militants.”

Along with transport facilities, terrorists may look for “any sort of soft target in and around the games, anything that would harm the reputation of the games,” Clements says. That could include events organized by corporate sponsors, which include U.S. giants Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Procter & Gamble.

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