3 Weeks to Sochi: Are Russian Security Forces Ready?

Security vets point to gaps in Russian law enforcement: Corruption, resource limitations and pride.

A woman and a police officer walk in front of Bolshoy Ice Dome in the Coastal Cluster on Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, in Alder, Russia.
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Terror in Russia in recent weeks has exceeded the usual security paranoia surrounding a high-profile event like the Olympic Games, following twin bombings in a city a few hundred miles away and reports of another impending suicide attack in Sochi.

A string of countries that includes Australia, Britain and the U.S. has recommended against their citizens traveling outside of the Olympic venue, amid reports of new threats popping up each week.

The Russian government currently has deployed roughly 40,000 law enforcement officers to protect Sochi, the Black Sea coastal town of roughly 343,000 residents. For context, that's a force 5,000 stronger than the entire New York City Police Department, which serves a population of more than 8 million.

As the Feb. 7 opening ceremonies approach ever closer, world powers are looking to Russia for some indication that the situation is enough under control for the games to go on.

[READ: Russians Hunt for Potential Female Suicide Bombers in Sochi]

"The main problem is the threat from suicide bombers. It's a unique threat and one that is not easily defended against," says Kevin Miles, a former FBI special agent who retired in 2013 after 23 years as a bomb technician.

Miles cites a mixture of pride and cooperation among the Russian law enforcement officers with whom he frequently worked at the FBI training facility in Quantico, Va., and other federal training centers. The "cop-to-cop" relationship was always strong, he says, but is often subject to disputes at the executive levels of the two governments.

The only way to deter a suicide bomber is to grab the device before it's put over his or her shoulders, Miles says. They are extraordinarily difficult to interdict once they're out in the field.

"Once that suicide bomber leaves the residence, leaves the safe house, leaves anywhere he or she is, that's it. You've lost the device," he says. "You will not see it again until it's detonated."

Miles is currently director of training at the Massachusetts-based private security firm Troy Asymmetric. He teaches law enforcement officers how to neutralize a suicide bomber if they are lucky to encounter one who hesitates before detonating the explosives. Many extremist groups operating in the Caucasus region and throughout southern Russia often build fail-safe devices into such bombs, allowing them to be detonated remotely if the prospective bomber has second thoughts.

Russian security forces are professional and well-trained, Miles says. Their main problem remains one they share with many other advanced nations: a lack of adequate resources.

The U.S. announced last week that two Navy ships already parked in the Black Sea are available to the Russian government if it asks for assistance. American law enforcement also will share technology developed during prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that aims to counter improvised explosive devices.

"I know the [FBI] is going to have people over there," Miles says. "I don't know how active we're going to be. It's not our country, I doubt very seriously we're going to go there and do things on our own. We're there in an advisory capacity."

The U.S. will not share any classified technology with the Russians, he adds, opting instead to share tactics, techniques and drills.

"The relationship between the two countries right now isn't the best. Cop-to-cop it is pretty good, if we are allowed access."

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Thus encapsulates the complex and at times paradoxical relationship between the two rivals, constantly prompted to cooperate in an ever-shrinking world, but hung up by a history of distrust.

Most countries hosting a high-profile event like the Olympics initially shirk external help, but soon realize such a course is foolish and unrealistic, says Juan Zarate, who served as a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush White House.

"That I don't think is happening in the Russian context," said Zarate, now a senior adviser at the D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, where he spoke Tuesday about the Olympic threat.