After two weeks, hundreds of medals, and billions of dollars spent, the Winter Olympics came to a close this weekend in Sochi, with all delegations departing unscathed — though some disappointed in their performance — despite weeks of worries about the possibility of a terrorist attack being carried out against the games.
This year’s Winter Olympics took place close to one of the most restive areas in the Russian Federation, with the states of Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Chechnya just beyond the Caucasus mountain range from Krasnodar Krai, home to Sochi. From the coverage before the Games that declared it was a matter of “not if but when” an attack occurred, you would be forgiven if you expected any minute to see breaking news declaring a bomb exploding somewhere within the Olympic Village or elsewhere throughout Russia. There was no shortage of coverage on cable news about the potential for “black widows,” spouses of dead terrorists who had taken up the cause for their own, to strike or for jihadis from the Caucasus Emirates to launch an attack. The United States government itself warned about the potential for “toothpaste bombs” to be used against flights coming into Sochi and warned American athletes from wearing their gear beyond the confines of the Village.
Yet despite the abundance of fears in the weeks leading up to the Winter Olympics, as they came to a close on Saturday, the body count remained at zero. So what explains the difference between the coverage beforehand and the reality of the games? According to Anthony Amore, a lecturer on homeland security at Fisher College and the former Assistant Federal Security Director for the Transportation Security Administration, there may have been several potential attacks that the Russian government managed to subdue without the operations becoming public.
“We don’t — and probably won’t — know what the Russians knew and what they might have foiled,” Amore told ThinkProgress in an email, adding “terrorists prefer the path of least resistance, and the Russians provided them with nothing of the sort. They implemented measures that probably wouldn’t be welcomed here in the United States.”
Those intrusive measures include banning rallies and protests scheduled to coincide with the Olympics and collecting DNA samples from Muslim women in the region. Russia also set up a massive surveillance dragnet to monitor all communications in the Black Sea resort city. “In fact, there’s great irony in the fact that the Russians reportedly monitored all calls and email traffic coming in and out of Sochi while Edward Snowden accepts refuge in that nation and is indignant about what he has revealed about the NSA,” Amore added.
“I personally don’t believe that there was too much hype before the games,” Amore said, pointing to the set of suicide bombings in the city of Volgograd in December and the video warnings of the same occurring in Sochi. “If one is willing to overlook the infringements on personal privacy that Putin’s security services put into place, then one can say that his ‘Ring of Steel’ around Sochi was a success,” Amore said, referring to the name given to the security efforts put into place around the Olympic venues. “Cutting off any paths of least resistance unquestionably saved lives. The question is in the privacy costs.”
On top of the privacy costs, there was the heavy-handedness with which Russia went about locking down the country. “Nobody really knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, but there’s really the possibility that Russia killed or detained everyone connected to a threat, and everyone who looked at them sideways got locked up,” Third Way national security analyst Aki Peritz told ThinkProgress. Numerous low level security raids throughout Russia after the Volgograd bombings lead to a lot of deaths, Peritz said, dryly noting “the very real possibility they detained half of Chechnya.” The number of arrests following Volgograd — at least 700 were detained according to most reports — suggests there may be truth in that statement.
The real surprise is that no attacks came outside of the Ring of Steel against so-called “soft-targets,” as the Volgograd bombings showed was all too possible. Jean-François Ratelle, a postdoctoral fellow at George Washington University, explained that part of the reason could be seen in a clampdown on travel within the Russian Federation. “Russia has increased their counterterrorist operations in order to limit the capacity of the insurgents travel or at least their movement from one state to another during the Olympics,” he said in a phone interview. That logistical barrier was likely too high for insurgents wanting to travel from Dagestan and Chechnya all the way to Moscow or St. Petersberg. Ratelle also noted that it’s difficult to execute new terrorist plots after the level of increased counter-terrorism operations seen in Russia prior to the Games.
And though the Olympics have concluded, Moscow won’t be disassembling the apparatus they’ve built up in Sochi in the near future. First, Russia will also be hosting the Paralympic Games in Sochi as well as the G-8 summit in June and a Formula 1 Grand Prix soon thereafter. After that, most of the surveillance equipment acquired for the Games will likely be spread around the country, but given the desire to transform Sochi into a tourist destination for Russia’s middle class, a sizable amount will probably remain within the area. And so while the tens of thousands of police officers from around Russia will go home, the local government hopes that the Caucuses become more known for their beaches than the threat of terror attacks.