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Putin’s big gamble on Sochi

As the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics draws, there is fear of a major terrorist attack in Sochi. 

Two terrorist acts in Volgograd and the threat of a terrorist attack at the Olympics have created concern about a repeat of the terrorism at earlier Olympics in Munich (1972) and Atlanta (1996).

Two American war ships have been dispatched to the Black Sea and warnings have gone out not to attend the games. 

Sochi is seen as a great moment not only for Putin but for Russia.

Past terrorist attacks in Russia at the Moscow theater (2002), where 130 people were killed, and Beslan (2004), where 334 people were killed, make this more plausible.

Yet, as justified as these concerns are, they are likely exaggerated. There are a number of factors that give rise to guarded optimism for a safe Winter Olympics. By their actions, the terrorists have lost their most important element--surprise. 

The Russians now know who is likely to be carrying out the terrorism (Doku Umarov, the self-proclaimed “Emir of the Caucasus Emirate,” if he is still alive), where (Sochi), and when (2/7-2/23). This is very helpful for the Russian security team.

Sochi has favorable topography, geography and history for the Russians. Sochi is separated by 400-500 miles from the Caucasus zone inhabited by the likely terrorists--and the land in between includes some of the bleakest and most inhospitable terrain in Russia with few passable roads.  

As a summer pleasure resort, Sochi has no past history of supporting terrorism but rather is the pleasure palace for the Moscow elite.

Sochi also has other aspects favoring the Russians. It is on the Black Sea, which can be protected by air and sea units with little cover for terrorists. Unlike other Winter Olympics with varying sites hundreds of miles apart, the 2,500 athletes from 88 countries will participate in two places that offer easy defenses. 

The Coastal Games (less than a square mile in circumference) will be in a small area of the city encircled by a wall and the Mountain Games will be a 30-mile ride from Sochi through difficult terrain passable only by cars and trains.

The combined power of the Russian police, security forces and military will be deployed to protect Sochi. Tens of thousands of Russian troops and police will offer overwhelming protection within Sochi and another 10,000 troops will guard the rugged and largely impassable mountain terrain.  

This huge number also guarantees protection for the housing of the athletes and nearby tourist attractions. 

Russia has been fighting terrorism from Chechnya and Dagestan for almost 20 years, going back to the two Chechen Wars (1994-1996, 2001-2006), and fighting wars in the region for almost 200 years.  

Increasing the threat alert at Sochi also guarantees increasing cooperation from European, American, Middle Eastern and other foreign intelligence agencies to share all intelligence information to protect their national teams and visitors. 

Dozens of countries, too, are sending their own security detail—albeit unarmed—will provide valuable eyes on the ground for the security forces.

Putin can now count on strong public support for such an effort. Sochi is seen as a great moment not only for Putin but for Russia. Much like the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, which brought great joy to China as its “coming out” moment, this is Russia’s moment in the sun. This support, based on a deep Russian national patriotism, means that a supportive public will also be vigilant.

Finally, the open threats to Vladimir Putin, who came to power promising to crush terrorism, have made preventing terrorism in Sochi his top priority. 

The $50 billion spent at Sochi, the re-emergence of Russia into international politics (especially in the nearby Middle East), and Putin’s own image would be devastated if Russia were unable to protect such a major “coming out.” 

Given Putin’s past as a KGB colonel and head of the Federal Security Bureau and the fact that 70 percent of the his elite are siloviki (power boys, from the secret police and army), he’ll have all resources available at his disposal.

Terrorism might yet rear its ugly head at Sochi. But, don’t count it.  

Putin’s doubling down and betting big on this year’s Olympics.  But he’s also stacked the deck.  Don’t bet on a bust in Sochi.

Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.  Adelman has written several books on Russia and was Condoleezza Rice’s doctoral adviser.