Photo credit to www.usatoday.com
With warships along the coast, anti-aircraft batteries stationed in the hills, and tens of thousands of police officers and soldiers filling the streets, the resort-city of Sochi, Russia appears to be preparing for war. The reason for this mass mobilization, however, seems far more benign: the 2014 Winter Olympics.
That is not to say there is no purpose for the more than 400,000 security agents in and around the city. Security is always an issue at the Olympics. What makes this year's games a cause for heightened concern is the very real threat of a terrorist attack at the hands of Chechnyan rebels.
This year's Olympic Games are relatively close to the unstable North Caucasus region, which has been a home to bloodshed between Russians and the Chechnyan ethnic group for centuries. In the 19th century, Chechnya was annexed by a growing Russian Empire. Ever since, it has been trying to regain its independence. It failed to do so in a popular revolt against the Soviets during World War Two, which resulted in much of the population being exiled to Kazakhstan and Siberia, thousands dying in the process. There was another uprising following the collapse of the Soviet Union, leading to a Russian invasion to quash the separatist movement. A second Chechnyan war began in 1999, lasting nearly a decade and killing an estimated 50,000 Chechnyan civilians.
The rebels, once purely nationalistic, have been largely consumed by the Jihadist movement. More recently, a series of suicide bombings tied to them have rocked the Russian city of Volgograd, killing 30 since October 15. Russian authorities are afraid that these suicide bombers, known as "black widows," will make an appearance in Sochi, seeking to avenge the deaths of their husbands and family.
Many athletes and visitors are afraid, as well. The NHL has even hinted that it is prepared to withdraw its players "if something significant were to transpire between now and February 9", according to USA Today. Fortunately for fans, Bill Daly, the league's deputy commissioner, does not believe that will become necessary. "As of now, we do not doubt that all necessary steps are being taken by the Sochi Organizing Committee, the Russian government and the IOC to ensure the safety of the athletes and guests in Sochi."
So what are these steps? I mentioned warships. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is mobilized, aided by two US ships, a destroyer and a smaller amphibious vessel. Tor-M anti-air vehicles can be found near key buildings, augmenting the firepower of the navy. Meanwhile, drones sweep the airspace as army patrols keep watch on the streets and along the highways. Spetsnaz commandoes roam the mountains outside the city, to prevent possible militants from moving in.
As if those measures are not enough, surveillance in the city has reached Orwellian levels. CCTV cameras keep a quiet sentinel on every street. All internet connections are carefully monitored. Literally everything residents and visitors do is under scrutiny. Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov told CBC News, "Everyone should expect that all their communications, all the technical devices like smart phones, laptops, will be completely transparent." All visitors are required to be scanned and to go through background checks, quite an ordeal considering there are an expected 10,000 attendees from the US alone.
These measures have not put all minds at ease. That is understandable. Heightened security doesn't make an attack impossible, but it sure makes it improbable. Is there reason to worry still? I don't think so. Ultimately, anyone attending should have faith that Russia is watching over them. Closely.