Volgograd attacks spark security fears ahead of Sochi Games

Volgograd attacks spark security fears ahead of Sochi Games

The Volgograd attacks that claimed 34 lives just weeks ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games came as a warning that security is still a concern in a region close to the unstable North Caucasus.

Volgograd is 400 miles from Sochi where the 2014 Winter Olympic Games are due to start in a few weeks, on 7 February 2014. Security concerns were among the most debated issues surrounding the choice of Sochi to host the Olympic Games. Located on the Black Sea coast in Southern Russia, Sochi is in immediate proximity of the North Caucasus republics.

The five republics have suffered from extensive insecurity in the post-Soviet period. The Republic of Chechnya led two wars against Russian forces for independence and insurgency continued until Chechnya became more stabilized under the rule of the President of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who is backed by Kremlin.

However, instability spilled over to neighboring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia. The Islamist insurgency led by a Chechen war veteran, Doku Umarov, seeks to establish an independent political entity united under Sharia law. Previously, Umarov claimed responsibility for the “most devastating suicide attacks in recent years”, such as the Moscow metro attack in 2010 and Domodedovo Airport attack in 2011.

In summer 2013, the Chechen rebel leader encouraged his followers to target Russia as it prepared for the Sochi Winter Olympic Games because the event will be held on the graves of Muslim occupants of Sochi, who he says were driven out by Russian imperial forces in the 19th century. The fear is that the recent attacks in Volgograd are the first moves of a series of terrorist attacks that seek to disrupt the Winter Olympic Games.

The first attack that took place on 29 December 2013 targeted the Volgograd railway station and killed 18 people. As the city was still in shock from this first attack, a second explosion destroyed a trolleybus and claimed the lives of 16 people on 30 December 2013 during their morning commute. In October 2013, a bomb explosion in a bus killed 6 passengers, also in Volgograd. Recent news from the region report that six bodies were found in four cars in two districts of the Stavropol region on 8 January and that two of the cars were booby-trapped.

Regarding the two attacks that took place in December 2013, Russian authorities believe that both suicide-bombers were men who arrived in Volgograd from the North Caucasus. However, as of 12 January 2014, no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

As BBC correspondent Daniel Sandford pointed out, “Russia is keen to use Sochi as part of a re-branding exercise, to show the progress it has made in recent years.” Thus, the recent terrorist attacks sparked a far-reaching campaign to tighten security measures in the region. In the immediate aftermath of the Volgograd attacks, more than 5,000 Interior Ministry troops arrived there to help with the investigation that initially resulted in the detention of 700 people by 2 January 2014.

Russian authorities aim to ensure that they can provide security in the Sochi region during the games. As an analyst pointed out, “Mr. Putin decreed a virtual state of emergency in the city” in August 2013 by deploying 40,000 police officers as well as army units. Recently, heavy security measures were introduced, including a restriction of air and maritime traffic as well as a “special exclusion zone” that will limit access of vehicles to the wider-Sochi area.

These measures are likely to prevent an immediate attack in Sochi on the infrastructure related to the Olympic Games. However, as Matthew Clements, editor of IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review and a Russia expert, pointed out, softer targets such as hotels and public transportation out of the immediate secured zone are more vulnerable during the event as well as other metropolitan areas further outside of the Sochi region.

As the Volgograd attacks demonstrated, providing security continues to be a priority for Russian authorities to ensure the safety of its citizens as well as athletes and spectators attending the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. A major attack would undermine the international image that President Putin is trying to create by showing the vulnerabilities of Russia at this international event that the entire world will be watching.

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