Can Russia Stop a Terrorist Attack during the Olympics?
The U.S. government issued chilling warnings last week about the risk of bloodshed in Russia during the Olympic games there next month. A wave of recent terror attacks in Stavropol and Volgograd, two of the most significant Russian metropolises nearest to Sochi, have finally caused the world to wake up to the risk that its athletes and spectators may be taking their lives in the hands by venturing into the Olympic cauldron.
The leader of the separatist rebels in Russia's Caucasus region has openly declared war on the Russian games, and so far Putin has shown no ability to stop him. As one publication recently put it:
He's been shot, bombed, blasted by a landmine and declared dead. But Doku Umarov is still Russia's public enemy number one: a man linked to two recent deadly bombings that killed some 32 people in Volgograd, a gateway to the Sochi Olympics.
The terrorist legions of the Caucasus are vicious, heartless killers. They have shown no hesitation in repeatedly targeting women and children, as they did when they attacked a crowded theater in Moscow and a school in Beslan. Taunting these maniacs by staging the Olympics right in their midst is surely one of the most reckless sports-related decisions in world history.
Now, even the craven Obama administration is getting very worried indeed, as its actions last week clearly show.
The U.S. State Department issued an official travel warning to Americans regarding Sochi. Not only did DOS warn Americans that it did not believe that Russia could guarantee that the venues would be free from terrorism, but in a humiliating blow for Russia, it also warned that if terrorism events do occur, Russia likely cannot provide adequate medical care for the victims. It's simply unprecedented for the U.S. government to warn Americans not to attend an Olympics because of the risk they'll be killed by terrorists (or local doctors in the aftermath).
Following up on the warning, House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) told ABC News, "I think the real vulnerability may not be within the Olympic games themselves, but possibly outside this perimeter, where you're going to have a lot of soft targets." By "soft targets" he means places like restaurants, hotels, and shopping malls. ABC quoted unnamed U.S. terrorism officials warning that the Volgograd and Stavropol attacks are deeply troubling because "bombings so far outside the Chechen battle space signals the militants' confidence in striking distant civilian targets for maximum political effect."
In fact, there are already worrying signs from the Russians themselves that they are in over their heads against the terrorists.
For one thing, Russia announced last week that it was going to dramatically restrict the number of people who could watch the Olympic mountain events in person, because it could not ensure security if forced to work with larger crowds. In another humiliation for Russia, some Russian bloggers speculated that this didn't actually reflect the problems blocking an attack, but rather the Kremlin's desire to cover up the massive attendance drop-off resulting from public fear of an attack.
For another, though the Kremlin had stated only days before that Russia did not need to make any changes in its anti-terror preparations in light of the Volgograd and Stavropol attacks, it suddenly and quietly reversed course and accepted a longstanding American offer to bring in FBI terrorism experts to assist with the defenses.
There is, of course, an astounding contradiction in a DOS policy that warns ordinary Americans not to attend Sochi and yet provides an official delegation to accompany U.S. athletes, encouraging them to attend. It is noteworthy that this Olympics will be, however, a rare instance were no current high-ranking U.S. official will attend, yet America will still send its defenseless athletes into the meat grinder that is the Caucasus region. President Obama is couching the withholding of his cabinet from the games in terms of a political protest regarding human rights, but it's perfectly possible that security concerns are the real reason his government won't be in Sochi.
And this gives rise to a larger and perhaps even more troubling question: did Obama remain silent and inactive for so long regarding the dangers inherent in attending the Sochi games not because he was unaware of the risk, but because he did not dare offending Vladmir Putin and thereby undermining the "reset" policy of appeasement towards Russia that has characterized most of Obama's term in office? Has Obama actually been willing to place American lives at risk in order to prostrate himself before an America-hating KGB spy?
Putin has certainly led his country between a rock and a hard place on the Olympics. By timing an ill-advised crackdown on civil rights (arresting environmental activists and political opponents and passing a draconian new law against homosexuality) to coincide with the games, Putin created powerful international pressure to permit protest demonstrations during the games at exactly the time when he most needs a free hand to grapple with the terrorists. He's already been forced to ratchet back his clamp-down on demonstrations, making it that much easier for terrorists to slip through his fingers.
Indeed, it may well be that the terrorists have already won. To say the least, even if there are no actual acts of terror in Sochi during the games, Russia will have been forced to take actions which will largely obliterate the Olympic spirit. As Simon Jenkins wrote recently in the Guardian, Putin has initiated a disturbing wave of mass arrests in response to the spate of bombings that recalls Russia's Soviet past:
Putin deliberately staged [the games] next to the tinderbox of the north Caucasus - miles from any ice or snow - to showcase his regime's strength in a region explosive with dissident Chechens, Circassians, Dagestanis and Ingushetians. The event is as provocative as if the Chinese had held the 2008 Olympics in Tibet. The death toll has already begun with two Volgograd bombs claiming 34 dead and 700 suspects arrested.
A recent cartoon shows a hapless Olympic torch-bearer being stopped at a gloomy barbed wire fence by Russian security goons toting Kalashnikovs, again strongly reminiscent of the old Iron Curtain. This may well be the best possible image the world can take away from Sochi.
The worst would be blood on the snow.
Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.