The terrorist bombings in Volgograd over the last two days are a tragedy for those killed and a threat to President Putin’s Sochi Winter Olympic preparations. On December 29, 2013 seventeen people were killed in Volgograd’s main railway station and on December 30, 2013 fifteen people were killed by a bomb on a trolleybus in that city. The blasts are believed to have been suicide bombings by Islamic separatists from Russia’s region of the North Caucasus.
SBS reported on December 30, 2013 that Ian Chesterman, the head of Australia's Winter Olympics team for the Sochi Olympics was confident about the safety arrangements for the team. Mr Chesterman indicated "We've been given assurances from the highest levels of the Russian government that the security will be very tight in Russia and Sochi.”
Volgograd(called Stalingrad during the Stalin era) is a major industrial city in Southern Russia around 900 km north of the Caucasus. Significantly Volgograd is a railway hub easily accessed from the Caucasus. Russia’s North Caucasus lies between the Black and Caspian Seas just north of Georgia.
The North Caucasus’ terrorist threat is clearly an international problem - particularly during the Sochi Olympics which run from February 6 to February 23, 2014. This is in terms of the threat to athletes competing at the Olympics and tourists visiting Russia. The Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013 were also inspired by North Circassian separatism. Events in Boston provide a grim reminder that threats also exist to cities and transport outside of Russia during the Olympics.
The conflict in the North Caucasus is highly complex and includes an insurgency and broader terrorism. The conflict is mainly between the politically and militarily dominant (generally Christian) ethnic Russians and the Muslim Circassian majority that they dominate. The Internal Crisis Group is reported as indicating that the North Caucasus insurgency and terrorism is driven by Islamic radicalisation, separatist aspirations, as well as:
Unresolved disputes over territory, administrative boundaries, land and resources…along with ethnic and religious tensions, the state's incapacity to ensure fair political representation, rule of law, governance and economic growth…The region's internal fragmentation and insufficient integration with the rest of the Russian Federation contribute to the political and social alienation of its residents.
The problem with Sochi is that many in the relatively poor North Caucasus see it as a symbol of ethnic Russian domination. Sochi lies in an ethnic Russian enclave on the east coast of the Black Sea and on western the edge of the North Caucasus. Sochi is a relatively wealthy beach resort in summer and alpine resort in winter.
President Putin has staked Russia’s and his personal reputation on an untroubled and safe Sochi Olympics. As with all Olympics these days counter-terrorist security preparations are huge. Russia has deployed around 50,000 police, troops and other security officials in and around Sochi. Other Russian cities including Volgograd also have heightened security.
Putin has banned gatherings, demonstrations and marches that have not been approved by security officials in "controlled" and "forbidden" zones in and around Sochi. This would include “gay propaganda” demonstrations. These restrictions are in force from January 7 to March 21, 2014.
One Russian counter-terrorist measure during the Sochi Olympics is communications surveillance. Something not revealed by Edward Snowden is that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) may have placed Russia under more intensive domestic communications surveillance than any security service in a Western country. Agentura.ru reports that Russia’s main system for intercepting communications, known as SORM has been extensively upgraded in Sochi. SORM enables the FSB to place all communications in Sochi under surveillance including telephone and mobile phone conversations and emails. Logically this would include surveillance of communications of athletes, tourists and Olympic officials during the Sochi Olympics. In that regard Agentura.au reports “On November 8th, 2013 Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed the decree which expressly authorizes the [Russian] government to collect data on telephone calls and Internet contacts made by the Olympic Games' organizers, athletes and foreign journalists.”
The Russian military is also deploying surveillance drones, anti-aircraft tanks, jetfighters and even anti-submarine defences - as Sochi is a Black Sea coastal city.
Given the terrorist threat to the Sochi Olympics that has revealed itself over the last 48 hours all these security preparations may be necessary. As a Russian and former KGB and FSB operative Putin would be torn between his natural urge to put strict counter-terrorism measures in place and his wish that Russia appear relaxed and democratic. In order to appear efficient and in control Putin is likely to launch a “successful operation” over the terrorists within the next few days to weeks – arrests at least.
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