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The Other Russian Olympics

By William Tucker
Guest Contributor, Sports and Fitness Network/Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security
Originally posted on In Homeland Security

“Russia replaces the Mongol Empire. Her pressure on Finland, on Scandinavia, on Poland, on Turkey, on Persia, on India, and on China, replaces the centrifugal raids of the steppemen. In the world at large she occupies the central strategical position held by Germany in Europe. She can strike on all sides and be struck from all sides, save the north.” – H. J. Mackinder, The Geographical Pivot of History 1904.

Russian security is not eternal, though its approach to the problem is common and perpetual. As we view Russia on the map we see a vast land that dominates the Eurasian landmass and as we look beyond the Russian political boundaries we see the challenges this nation has faced in the past, albeit with different names is a few cases. This challenge is always the same – Russia must expand militarily or at least politically through influence, if it is to keep its neighbors at bay. Understandably, Russia’s neighbors grasp this situation quite clearly and have aligned together when possible to resist Moscow’s reach lest they be dominated. The contemporary position of Russia is not any less perilous than it has been in the past. European nations, through the EU and at times NATO, have looked for ways to maintain the post Soviet Union status without appearing overly threatening to Moscow, but the mere existence of such organizations is problem for Russian security. For now, this situation is holding – and will likely continue to hold – for some time, but Russia still faces the challenge of occupying so much territory containing so many non-Russian peoples. In essence, the weakness and strengths of Russian national security often overlap. By extending as far as it has, Moscow has pushed back on many of the external foreign threats, but in doing so has absorbed many smaller ethnic groups into Russia proper. Naturally, not all of these groups are pleased with the status quo.

Russia must maintain a balance of security interests not unlike the many events found in the Olympic games. Internal and external diplomacy, intelligence collection, and the occasional military operation are all part and parcel of what Moscow must employ, and though this is not unlike most other nation-states, Russia has far more at stake. If one were to consider that Russians are a minority in their own country, then the problem of maintaining internal security becomes far more profound. As is widely known, in just a few weeks’ time Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and while securing the event will be a significant undertaking, the vast array of militants operating in Russia will see this as an opportunity to strike out where and whenever they can. Just over the past weekend two suicide bombing occurred in Volgograd and another two, which went underreported but are just as significant, occurred in Derbent – a city located in the restive Dagestan province of Russia’s Caucasus region. Though these attacks didn’t target the Olympic areas directly, they did occur in Volgograd – a likely transit point for Olympians and spectators alike – and they occurred in a Caucasus state that is home to a long running insurgency. Though the Emir of the Caucasus Emirate did threaten to derail the Olympics, Moscow will likely increase counterterrorism operations in the Caucasus and the Emirate is simply responding in kind.

Russia has dedicated a large number of security forces to ensure that the Olympics are conducted without serious incident – the disruption of a Caucasus Emirate plot in 2012 within Sochi boundaries surely provided some impetus to beef up security – however the fight between Moscow and the Caucasus militants is one that has played out long before, and will last far beyond, the 2014 Olympics. What this means is that while Russia is dedicating a significant portion of its security apparatus to Sochi, other targets may be left vulnerable. The occurrence of this past weekend’s suicide bombings in Volgograd have made international news due to the spectacular nature of terrorism and the proximity to a major international event, but militants have recently planned to hit targets as far away as Moscow, and some as heavily guarded as a chemical weapons destruction plant. Some militant movements in Russia may be weak due to infighting, the Caucasus Emirate among them, but they have shown resilience to security operations. So concerned is the Interior Ministry and the FSB that they have issued subpoenas to known activists in Russia for cataloging purposes, something akin to booking an individual before they commit a crime. Russia has carried out activities such as this in the past, albeit surreptitiously, however the move to do so publically at this time is noteworthy.

The bulk of the attention to the militant threat will likely be focused on Islamic militancy, and not those associated with punk bands or Greenpeace. Doku Umarov has made numerous threats towards the Olympics and Moscow will redouble their efforts in the next few weeks to disrupting the Emirate’s activities nationally, while searching for him and his associates throughout the Caucasus. In fact, Russia has deployed a large number of forces to Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Chechnya in recent weeks to support these efforts. Umarov has survived internal dissention and Russian forces for quite some time, but these recent attacks may bring about a reckoning that is long overdue. Perhaps another disquieting though about recent attacks is the lack of control Umarov exercises over these plots. In reviewing some of Umarov’s internet statements, it is quite apparent that he is calling on all Muslims to disrupt the Olympic games violently and perhaps independently without necessarily waiting for orders from him or another likeminded group. A lone wolf attack, therefore, is not out of the realm of possibility. Militants with little training or resources may not be able to get past security checkpoints, but as we have seen in Volgograd it is often easy to just target the queue of people waiting to pass through security. A lone wolf or a seasoned militant could cause significant havoc using such an approach. What this comes down to is the Olympics are merely a single flashpoint in a long running security challenge for a vast, yet declining nation-state. And while a terrorist attack – most likely a low level one – is highly likely it will do little to derail the games, though it will certainly harm Russian prestige. All told, this just isn’t about a security situation in the short term, but a long term challenge that has defined Russia for centuries.

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