Russia faces security challenges at Sochi Olympics

(Dmitry Lovetsky/AP)
Associated Press + More

By SERGEI VENYAVSKY and VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, Associated Press

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Drones hovering overhead, robotic vehicles roaming Olympic venues to search for explosives, high-speed patrol boats sweeping the Black Sea coast — Russian officials say they will be using cutting-edge technology to make sure the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi will be "the safest Olympics in history."

But intelligence analysts and regional experts say an Islamist insurgency raging across the North Caucasus mountains that tower over the seaside resort of Sochi presents daunting threats. Despite the deployment of tens of thousands of Russian troops, police officers and private guards equipped with high-tech gadgetry, the simmering unrest in the Caucasus could put President Vladimir Putin's pet project at risk.

The Sochi games are the first Olympics in history that are almost on the doorstep of an active insurgency whose members could potentially try to "upstage the games with some kind of attack, which would provide a kind of bad PR for the Russian government," said Matthew Henman, a senior analyst at Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London.

Potential assailants could disrupt the games even with scarce resources, he said, pointing at the recent Boston Marathon explosions, where two shrapnel-packed pressure-cooker bombs killed three people and injured more than 260 in April.

"You don't need an awful lot of expertise to create primitive but largely effective explosive devices," Henman said.

The elder of the two ethnic Chechen brothers from Russia who are accused of staging the Boston bombings spent six months last year in the restive Russian province of Dagestan, which lies about 500 kilometers (300 miles) east of Sochi, about the distance between Boston and Philadelphia. Russian investigators have been trying to determine whether he had contact with local Islamic militants.

Dagestan has become the center of the insurgency that spread across Russia's North Caucasus region after two separatist wars in the 1990s in neighboring Chechnya. Rebels seeking to carve out a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the region have targeted police and other officials in near-daily shootings and bombings.

"The Caucasus poses a threat because the situation there isn't fully controlled," said Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert with the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office. "It's unclear who could deal a blow, and how and where."

Police, security and medical personnel in Sochi have conducted dozens of drills to train for potential threats. In the most recent exercise at the end of May hundreds of police officers, rescue workers and ambulance crews responded to various emergency scenarios.

"We conduct training to respond to a broad range of terror threats, like explosives at Olympic facilities or an attack by a group of criminals," said Sarkis Pogosian of the Russian Emergencies Ministry's branch in southern Russia. More than 50 such exercises have been conducted in the past 18 months, according to the Interior Ministry.

The drills have highlighted several logistical problems that could make it hard for rescue workers to respond quickly.

Nikolai Vasilyev of Sochi's search and rescue service, who took part in the latest maneuvers, said the exercises have been relatively small-scale and a bigger real-life challenge could prove daunting. He said it would be hard for rescue crews to arrive quickly by road because of Sochi's chronic traffic jams. The few rescue helicopters the service has would be of little help if there were a large number of casualties.

"It would be practically impossible for ambulances and our vehicles to get to an Olympic facility," Vasilyev said. "We can only hope that everything goes forward smoothly."

Vasilyev said authorities need to reserve designated lanes for ambulances and other emergency services, create a network of mobile hospitals near Olympic facilities and remove parking lots cluttering the access to sports venues.

Security always has been tight in Sochi, where Putin has a presidential residence that he uses often and where he frequently hosts visiting foreign leaders.