The story of Chechen and Ingush resistance dates back to the times of Imperial Russia. The 1817-1864 Caucasian War concluded with the annexation of the two republics by Russia, but also bequeathed a nearly intractable region, most conducive to the emergence of separatist movements. After an abortive attempt to secede from Moscow’s authority, in 1922 Chechnya and Ingushetia were incorporated within the USSR. Following years of oppression, after the collapse of the Soviet Union the region plunged into the 1994-1996 Chechen War with Russia, winning its de facto independence. After Russia’s triumph in the 1999-2000 Chechen War, however, Moscow once again reasserted control over Chechnya.
While in the 1990’s Russia was undergoing a tumultuous transition to democracy and to a free market economy, in the years thereafter the leadership in Moscow had already consolidated its power. After the Yeltsin years, marked by economic and political turmoil and an unsuccessful coup d’état against the president, the subsequent administration of Mr. Putin managed to restore economic stability and establish control over the country. After 2001, jeopardizing Russia’s territorial integrity via military means would basically be impractical. Having resolved most of the pressing issues at home and ushered the country to a period of economic growth and financial security, Mr. Putin had more room to focus on and tackle the problem of the separatist Caucus republics. War was essentially out of the question. Military insurgency, however, was not.
Following Moscow’s political reentry into the region, combatants for Chechen independence turned to guerrilla warfare. More importantly, however, to demonstrate their contempt to Russia’s political leadership, they have resorted to terrorist practices, wreaked havoc across the country and took the lives of many. From the Beslan school hostage crisis, in which more than 300 people died, to the attacks on a theater in Moscow, and the bombs in Moscow’s subway and Domodedovo Airport, Chechen rebels have displayed their resolution to effect chaos across Russia and infest Russian society with fear. Most recently, just weeks ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, a black widow – an Islamist and usually Chechen female suicide bomber, who lost her husband to the cause of Chechen independence – blew herself up at a train station in Volograd. Sixteen people died. This assault came days after Dokka Umarov, the leader of the self-proclaimed entity and de facto terrorist organization Caucasian Emirate, called for attacks on the Olympics. The incident raised numerous questions with regards to the security of the upcoming games. High concentration of people, a majority of which foreigners, and a major international event, threatened by rebels ready to blow themselves up, seem like a cocktail Molotov whose contents the Russian authorities will have to carefully sieve. Will they succeed?
True, the Winter Olympics in Sochi seem like the perfect opportunity to strike with a resounding impact and make your voice heard across the globe, though in an oddly sadistic manner. Russia, however, cannot afford to have the games go the wrong way. Ensuring the protection of tourists, beyond a doubt, remains the main, if not concern then, priority for the regime. As a power of prominent standing on the international stage, providing maximum security is a matter of pride and proving to the world that Russia has the capacity to tackle issues at home on its own. Also, should a terrorist attack occur in Sochi, the political establishment in Moscow, which already has a contentious relationship with the West, will face further scrutiny and criticism. In addition, any breach of security during the Winter Olympics will deal a major blow to Russian tourism, which comprises 6.5% of the country’s GDP. Taking into account the ruinous effects of any potential attack and the constant reassurances from Moscow that all actions have been taken to ensure the smooth procession of the games, the odds of a Chechen insurgency during are miniscule, at best.
As a nation of considerable military might and strong political influence, Russia has too much to lose, if a group of felonious mavericks succeeds at smuggling weapons into the Olympic village and carrying out an attack. The checkpoints around Sochi which will be utilized to monitor all luggage and merchandise entering the city will help reduce the risk of destructive weaponry falling into the hands of the wrong people. In addition, the deployment of 100,000 agents of the Russian security forces will further decrease the chances of ill-intended people to see their terror plans come to fruition. In fact, the high-tech defense systems – missiles, drones, high-speed boats, sonars and radars – which Moscow has deployed may make one wonder whether Sochi is preparing for a modern reproduction of the Battle of Leningrad or a simple Olympiad. The ongoing searches of each resident’s home, which began in September 2013, will further help eradicate any potential terrorist den. A security operation of such a scale remains unprecedented in the history of the Winter Olympics and highlights the commitment of Russia to safe and smooth games. The fact that Moscow has repeatedly declined foreign propositions for assistance further underscores the decisiveness of Russian authorities to preclude any incident from marring Sochi 2014.
After the attack in Volograd, Russia knows well that much of the attention of the West has been focused on the upcoming games. If after this incident and the numerous declinations of international advice, Moscow still mishandles the Olympics, it will encounter further ostracism and lukewarm courtesy from the Occident at a time when neither side needs crispier relations. The controversy surrounding Russia’s recently-adopted, anti-gay laws has already cast a shadow over the games. The case of the incarcerated members of the music group Pussy Riot, who dared criticize the regime of Mr. Putin, has raised further doubts about the human rights situation in the country and the ability of one to freely express opinions. As if all of the above problems cannot suffice, most foreign state heads have declined to attend the Olympics and Russia has become embroiled in the question of Ukraine’s future, a question over which the country might plunge into a civil war. Clearly, Russia needs no more strain in its relationship with the West, let alone originating from the death of foreign citizens to a terrorist attack at poorly-protected Sochi. If Moscow secures the games and they proceed with no major incidents, however, the political establishment will have a moment to shine and may take advantage of the situation to warm up its ties with Europe and the US.
The sizeable income which tourism brings to the Russian economy will also suffer from a blunder in Sochi. Moscow and St. Petersburg are the two major destinations for visitors in the country and Moscow alone has approximately a million tourists at every moment. The recent bombings in Volograd and memories of the previous terrorist attacks in Russia’s capital have already made travelers to Sochi jittery. If a similar tragedy bobbles the Winter Olympics, Russia will certainly lose. First, people who have decided to extend their itinerary beyond Sochi will likely forsake their plans to avoid further peril and reassure everyone at home that they are safe and sound. Second, any prospective travelers will probably think twice before embarking on a journey in the region. When the international outcry inculcates even more fear among foreigners about the situation in Russia, Moscow may see the number of tourists drop by the hundreds of thousands. If anything beyond a competition, the Olympics are also a way of advertising your country. A terrorist attack, however, will certainly debunk the myth that there is no such thing as bad publicity. The political establishment in Moscow has yet another reason to do as much as it says it has done to dissuade or disarm Chechen insurgents. Otherwise, Russia’s economy may stumble and see its growth rate decline.
Russia’s war on domestic terrorism will certainly not come to an end with the battle in Sochi. However, the country undoubtedly has a lot at stake in Sochi. Should Moscow decrease the security measures in other major cities to protect just the Winter Olympics, the rebels of Chechnya will be quick to act and difficult to stop. With the massive deployment of defense personnel and technology, the site of the games does appear well-protected and risk-free. Considering the blow to tourism and Russia’s international standing, which a terrorist attack will deal, the country has yet more motivation to ensure that the Winter Olympics do not become an event to mourn, but an event to remember. If Moscow, after all concerns and criticism, lives up to the expectations, its political establishment could make a good use of the pat on the shoulder to reconcile with the West and boost its already-booming tourist industry.