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When the Olympics open in Sochi on Feb. 7, athletes will be welcomed to the costliest and the most fortified games in Olympic history. Terror threats and recent bombings blamed on separatists in the neighboring Caucasus have put Sochi and nearby cities on virtual lockdown. More than 30,000 Russian police officers and troops are expected at the games, as well as FBI agents and other foreign security officers. We find out how Sochi is preparing, what security measures visitors can expect and how serious the threat is from Russia’s neighboring Islamist insurgency.
- Andrew Kuchins Senior Associate in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
- Kathy Lally Moscow Bureau Chief, Washington Post
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck, from the University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo. With two weeks to go to the winter games in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin has guaranteed a safe Olympics. He's even said visitors to Russia can feel "calm and at ease." But with terror threats coming in almost daily from Islamic militant groups in the nearby North Caucasus, the region is anything but at ease. Russia has spent $51 billion on the games, the highest price tag ever for an Olympics. But the prospect of a single attack, or even just a scare during the games, could mar both the spirit and the success of Russia's big moment on the world's sports stage.
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKIt's a concern that has the international community offering unprecedented help, from manpower to ships and even spy technology. So who's behind these security threats and why are they targeting Sochi? What precautions are Russia and the international community taking? And what should athletes and visitors expect in Sochi? Joining us in studio is Andrew Kuchins, senior fellow and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Good to have you here, Andy.
MR. ANDREW KUCHINSMy pleasure.
GOLBECKAnd by phone from Moscow is Kathy Lally, Moscow bureau chief for the Washington Post. Thanks for joining us, Kathy.
MS. KATHY LALLYHappy to join you.
GOLBECKKathy, let's start with you. We're hearing that there will be up to 60,000 Russian troops in and around Sochi. The FBI is sending two dozen agents to help with security and we're hearing reports of threats, both real and hoaxes, almost daily. Before we talk about who's behind all these worries, can you give us an idea of what Russia and especially Sochi feels like with just two weeks to go to the Olympics? Are people on edge?
LALLYYou know, most Russians are pretty fatalistic. And it takes a lot to get them on edge. I was here in 1999, in the fall when two big apartment buildings were blown up within a few days of each other. And that came right after a bomb went off in a shopping mall right next to the Kremlin, practically. And then people were nervous because they just felt, you know, it could be their apartment building. And certainly recently when there was a series of terrorist attacks in Volgograd, one in October, and then two at the end of November when there were bombs going off at the main train station and in a trolley booth -- people got nervous.
LALLYSo in Russia right now, I would say that in Moscow maybe people are a little bit apprehensive, but just going about their business. They're not too worried about it. There have been a lot over the last few years, a lot of alerts in Moscow and people have pretty much taken it in stride. There was a poll published the other day by the Levada Center. And the poll was taken in early January. And 63 percent of the respondents said that they did not think that the authorities could protect them from terrorists' threats. So people kind of accept that, try not to think about it and go on.
LALLYSochi probably is a different matter. I was there in September and as of January 7th they declared it a closed city, where there are extra special precautions, only locally registered cars are allowed in the city now. There are frequent checkpoints, people are being double checked, their papers are being checked. So I think maybe there's a little bit more feeling of annoyance and apprehension in Sochi because people are being reminded of it every day.
GOLBECKSure. So you also can join the conversation. Would you attend the Sochi Olympics given the security threats around the games? And what do you remember about the warnings and response to terror attacks at games like Atlanta and Munich.
GOLBECKYou can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850, by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or get in touch with us through our Facebook page or by sending us a tweet to @kojoshow. Kathy, I'd like to continue with you. Russia has identified two so-called black widow suspects they say could attack even as soon as this week, as the Olympic torch makes it way to its final destination. What do we know about these suspects and are they in Sochi now?
LALLYThey're kind of circumspect about where they think they are. They said one might be in Sochi. And basically it seems it was somebody who was on the radar and disappeared and now they're saying maybe she's in Sochi. We better be on the lookout for her. And two others are supposed to be maybe in Sochi, maybe somewhere else in southern Russia. I think people who are really familiar with how suicide bombers operate, think that it's a little unlikely that such a person could have success in Sochi right now. You need a lot of planning. You need a handler. It's not just one person walking in somewhere and setting off a bomb. It's a pretty sophisticated undertaking.
LALLYAnd with all the security in Sochi now, that seems a little unlikely. I mean, you know, who knows, it could happen, but it seems a little unlikely that it would.
GOLBECKAndy, Russia has spent up to $51 billion on these games. And security officials have vowed to put a ring of steel around Sochi, but what do these latest terror threats say about security in and around Sochi right now?
KUCHINSWell, I recall in the 1930s that the French referred to the Messina line as virtually impenetrable and we learned shortly thereafter that the Nazis were able to take it out pretty easily. I agree with Kathy that for a suicide bomber or a terrorist to penetrate the security at Sochi is going to be very difficult. But, you know, a security system is only as strong as its weakest link.
KUCHINSAnd one of the greatest problems that you refer to in Russia is corruption. And there's also serious corruption amongst the security officials. When the team that overtook the theater in Moscow in 2002, the Nord-Ost Theater, you know, they got from the North Caucasus into the heart of Moscow by bribing a lot of security people and officials along the way and getting through checkpoints.
KUCHINSSo you only have to have one person get through. I think it's virtually impossible probably for, you know, a larger scale attack like what we saw in Beslan, the school, in 2004 or the Nord-Ost Theater, where it requires, you know, 10 to 15, 20 people. But to get one person into Sochi is certainly not inconceivable.
KUCHINSAnd the rumors that we've heard and reports, in particularly about this one woman, the Ruzana Ibragimova, from Dagestan, which is kind of the epicenter of the insurgency in the Northern Caucasus. It's a just a couple of hundred kilometers away or so. The fact that she was interrogated by security officials, she had been identified as a potential (unintelligible) or black widow bomber.
KUCHINSShe has a very distinguishing feature, a four-inch scar on her face, walks with a limp apparently and has a stiff arm -- you know, you read something like that and you don't know whether the report is a hoax or whether it is simply -- some of these reports in the video that was distributed -- that purportedly was of the two bombers of Volgograd, that they had prepared before the Volgograd bombings, you know, those reports -- whether they're true or not -- they contribute to heightening the atmosphere of insecurity around the games. And, you know, it wouldn't take, actually, an attack in Sochi itself, I think, to deeply disrupt the games.
GOLBECKIf we were to see a series of attacks of the Volgograd caliber between now and February 7th or February 23rd, when the games come to a conclusion, that's going to deeply, deeply, deeply disrupt, I think the atmosphere around the games. Kathy referred to that poll of 63 percent of Russians feeling insecure in early January, well, of course that was taken just a few days after the back-to-back bombings in Volgograd.
GOLBECKSo it's understandable why Russians feel insecure. It's also understandable why -- I agree with Kathy -- the Russians are fairly fatalistic because they've been dealing with this threat for at least 15, 20 years. But, you know, for the rest of the world, and for the Olympic Games themselves, the perception is going to be quite different.
GOLBECKI'd like to follow up with both of you on this corruption issue. Kathy, let's start with you. There are fears that bribes, which are commonplace in Russian society, could help potential terrorists get close to key venues, and Andy kind of mentioned this. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think that this kind of corruption is a real threat to the security of the Olympics?
LALLYConceivably yes. But I also think that even though Putin recently denied that there could possibly be any corruption involved in the Olympics, we know that there has to be extensive corruption. That's the way things work here. And so I think they probably have, you know, they're probably trying to figure out to combat that. They probably have backup systems. They probably don't have just, you know, two checkpoints, they have four. So, you know, maybe a couple of people will be bribed, but not everyone. It's hard to say, but I'm sure that they are dealing with that. But I wanted to just amplify something that Andy said.
LALLYThey've diverted so many police and troops from other cities and other regions that it's very possible that there could be some attacks elsewhere, not far from Sochi, but, as he said, that could endanger the games, too, because, you know, you have a couple Volgograd's happening right before the games and it's going to create some anxiety.
GOLBECKAnd, Andy, the security situation is not the only place where we've seen discussions of corruption. A critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin came out recently with a report that questioned Sochi's exorbitant price tag. The report said that cronyism and corruption have led to a decrease in the quality of work on the venues. Are there fears that corruption could have influenced builders to cut corners in the construction of the venues in Sochi? Or is Sochi pretty comparable to previous games like Beijing, which went up quickly with a high price tag?
KUCHINSWell, I think the Chinese have a much stronger track record in building infrastructure. Period. You know, than do the Russians. This is a concern that I've -- this has concerned me as well. This has been a project that has been crashed as Russians are inclined to do. And even as late as a month or so ago, I think the largest stadium have not been completed. So the possibility of corners being cut and some kind of problem emerging was part of the physical infrastructure around the games is definitely a possibility.
GOLBECKYou're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Jen Golbeck sitting in for Kojo. We'll continue our conversation about security at the Sochi Olympics in a moment. Stay with us.
GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Andrew Kuchins and Kathy Lally about security at the Sochi Olympics. If you'd like to join us, call 1-800-433-8850. Andy, an Islamic group in Russia's North Caucasus has claimed credit for two deadly suicide bombings last month in the southern city of Volgograd, which we've talked about earlier in the show. Tell us more about the history of this group and how they're linked to al-Qaida if at all.
KUCHINSWell, the video that have been emerged was produced by the Dagestani Vilayat, which is a part of a very kind of loose network of groups and individuals known as the Caucasus Emirate, which is headed by the rumored dead, but has been rumored dead many, many times in the past, Doku Umarov. And Umarov had issued a statement back in July of 2013 in which he had kind of taken the handcuffs off of people that were listening to him and said, you know, we will -- we should target civilians again.
KUCHINSThis had been in place for about a year and a half or so after the demonstrations in response to the 2011 parliamentary elections. And he specifically called for people to target the Sochi games themselves. Now the numbers of people that are tied with the Caucasus Emirate is probably in the hundreds. It's kind of hard to estimate. Again, it's a very, very, very loose network. There is not a clear, kind of, vertical structure of power.
KUCHINSAnd actually, you know, whether Doku Umarov is alive or dead, at this point, I don't think it actually makes much of a difference for the Sochi games themselves because he's already called for his people to, you know, mobilize. And he himself is not an operational kind of actor as compared to, let's say, Shamil Basayev, a terrorist -- a Chechen terrorist from about 10 years ago who was killed in 2006 by Russian security forces but who was responsible for the Beslan School takeover and other major terrorist acts.
GOLBECKLet's take a call now from Andy in Crofton, MD. Andy, you're on the air. Go ahead.
ANDYHi guys. I know that Putin used the Beslan School incident to kind of recentralize power. I wonder if these recent terrorist threats regarding the Olympics, if Putin's use these as instrument to recentralize more power or to implement more policies for his political kingdom.
GOLBECKThanks for your call. Andy Kuchins, your thoughts.
KUCHINSWell, you're absolutely right, Andy, that the response to the Beslan bombings of Putin, you know, came out with the new legislation for eliminating the election of governors in the Russian Federation, different rules for elections to the Russian Duma and other measures. And terrorist attacks, in general, in Russia -- not only in Russia probably -- but certainly have kind of redounded to support the political power Vladimir Putin.
KUCHINSAnd he's used that on a number of occasions. You know, Putin's political -- the centralization of political power in Russia has reached such an extent that I don't think that we necessarily would expect to see that in response to potential bombings in Sochi. I think Putin faces a greater danger in that, you know, he has banked a lot of his political credibility and authority on the narrative that he has brought stability and security and predictability to Russia.
KUCHINSAnd he's actually taken a very large risk in holding these Olympic Games in such close proximity to virtually a conflict zone. Never in history has Olympic Games been held in such a close proximity to a conflict zone. So if, you know, Putin has said, as Jen noted at the outset, he's guaranteed a safe Olympics. It's impossible actually to guarantee a safe Olympics. And all of us certainly hope there will be a safe Olympics.
KUCHINSBut I'm afraid that a series of attacks, including possibly an attack on Sochi is not, at this time, going to redound to the benefit of Vladimir Putin's political authority.
GOLBECKKathy, I'd like to follow-up on that with an email from Jonathan in D.C. who says, by tying himself so closely to the Olympics, isn't Putin making Sochi more of a target? Some experts point to no further terror events since the two recent bombings as demonstrated success. But wouldn't terrorists wait until the Olympics to ensure a world stage and a big audience? And wasn't this a major concern when the Olympics Committee selected the site?
LALLYPutin managed to charm them when he went to Guatemala at the Olympic -- International Olympic Committee, I mean. He went to Guatemala on July 4th of 2007, I think, and charmed them by speaking English and a little French and promising that everything would be perfect. And I think, though, that it's true that he has made it a target because, at this point, with so many threats being made, if no terrorist attack comes off in or near Sochi, this network in the North Caucuses is going to look pretty weak and finished. So there's a huge incentive for them to carry out some kind of an attack.
GOLBECKAndy, did you want to follow-up?
KUCHINSYeah, just on one thing, you know. As Kathy noted when Putin went to Guatemala City in 2007, that was a moment of a relative (word?) in the frequency of attacks, conflict in the North Caucuses. Chechnya had been relatively stabilized and it was just in the next -- beginning of the next year or two that the frequency of terrorist acts and conflicts in other republics of the North Caucuses began to increase dramatically.
KUCHINSSo that was kind of a relatively, you know, better window of opportunity, I suppose, to convince the committee. But still, it was a great risk. And I completely agree with all of the assumptions or kind of behind the caller's question and Kathy's response.
GOLBECKYou can join the conversation as well. Are troops, fencing and fortresses enough to protect against terrorism? Have security threats marred the Olympic spirit? You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850, by emailing us at email@example.com or by sending us a tweet to @kojoshow. Kathy, let's talk about past terrorist attacks and how Russia has responded. If we look at things like the 2002 theater siege in Russia and one of the school -- one attack in Beslan which has come up a few times in the conversation.
GOLBECKRussian security forces have really responded with all gun blazing. And that approach resulted in many innocent lives lost. Could we expect the same approach if something happens in Sochi? Or have Russians refined their tactics?
LALLYYou're right both the theater takeover and the school at Beslan resulted in horrible loss of life. At the theater in 2002, about 40 or more militants took 850 people hostage. And eventually the authorities burst in with gas, which killed a lot of the -- 130 hostages died. And there was no planning. Later doctors said that if they had known what was being used, they could have been there with an antidote and saved lives.
LALLYAnd they went in with guns blazing in Beslan and, you know, a school, an -- a school had been taken hostage. There were a lot of small children there. There were, I think, a thousand or more hostages and 385 died. After that, they did reform apparently. But the problem is, I think they -- I've been told that they focus very much on that kind of large scale mass event, which seems unlikely in Sochi.
LALLYSo the question is have they -- are they able to adapt? Have they rehearsed and planned for a smaller scale event that they would know how to deal with without endangering spectators and athletes.
GOLBECKAndy, diplomatic relations between Russia and the U.S. run hot and cold at best. Given the tension between the two countries, could Russia be less willing to share important security information with American officials?
KUCHINSI might characterize them running sort of cool and colder, at best. But I think I agree -- one of the problems in the intelligence cooperation or a lack of intelligence cooperation in the relationship is that it is kind of correlated to the degree of how much work there is in the relationship and more importantly the trust. Right after 9/11, that was the peak in the U.S.-Russia relationship since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
KUCHINSThat was the peak of intelligence cooperation. And the Russians were extremely helpful, in many ways, in the coalition's effort to take out the Taliban. And we know where the relationship has gone in the past couple of years. Intelligence cooperation has fallen off. I was very pleased to see that yesterday Russian general -- head of their -- chief of the general staff met with Martin Dempsey, chief of the general staff in the U.S., his U.S. counterpart in Brussels.
KUCHINSAnd they talked about intelligence cooperation and the possibility of some kinds of equipment being supplied to support the Russians. But in general, the Russians have been very reluctant to take up offers of support, particularly from the Americans. And I think part of this is tied to the, you know, where the relationship is. I think part of it is tied to the kind of the psychology that, you know, look, we're a great power.
KUCHINSWe can manage this ourselves. We don't really need your help and we certainly don't, you know, need your help or trust, in fact, the -- your intelligence services. And unfortunately, and we saw just recently in April with the bombing at the Boston Marathon by the Tsarnaev brothers that that was clearly a failure in principally, you know, obviously U.S. intelligence that took place on U.S. territory. But it was also a failure in U.S.-Russian efforts to cooperate and work together.
GOLBECKLet's take a call from Seth in Washington, D.C. Seth, you're on the air. Go ahead.
SETHGood afternoon, guys. I have a question. It's related to the media reports online that claims the Saudi chief of intelligence has offered to protect Sochi from terrorist attacks in exchange for Russia agreeing to the ouster of Assad from Syria.
GOLBECKKathy, what are your thoughts? We actually have a couple of callers with that same question.
LALLYI'm sorry I didn't hear the last part. In exchange for what?
GOLBECKFor Russian support of Assad.
KUCHINSGiving up their support for Assad.
GOLBECKHave you heard any news on this?
LALLYNo, I heard -- I have not. It's a very intriguing idea.
LALLYBut I had not heard anything.
KUCHINSI haven't heard of this specific offer. But the likelihood of the Russians taking up this offer is not even slim to none, it's none. And the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Russia, which has always been pretty problematic, it went back to the war in Afghanistan back in the 1980s when the Saudis were strongly supporting the Mujahideen, is unlikely. But the Syria factor actually is pretty significant.
KUCHINSAnd probably it's -- it's ironic, you know, it's a tragedy obviously what's going on in Syria. But the fact that the conflict in Syria is still going on and that there are probably hundreds of North Caucasian fighters in Syria who are basically kind of fighting under the same, you know, global jihadist ideology espoused by Doku Umarov and the likes and the Russian Federation, maybe somewhat fortunate for Vladimir Putin because they're not going to be coming back to the north -- to the North Caucuses.
GOLBECKThat's a really interesting connection. So, Kathy, let's wrap up with some thoughts from you. How are Russians monitoring the visitors, athletes and journalists who are arriving in and around Sochi?
LALLYIn every way possible. They're prepared to monitor, to intercept every email, to monitor internet activity, gather -- there's a special order approving the gathering of metadata from journalists and athletes and Olympic officials. And while they may argue that that's a good thing for the Olympics, a lot of people here are afraid that it's a testing zone for rolling out in the whole country. So if you're going to the Olympics, don't expect any privacy. And...
GOLBECKSo thank you very much. Kathy Lally, Moscow bureau chief for the Washington Post. And Andy Kuchins, thanks for joining us. I'm Jen Golbeck sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks for listening.
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