The terrorist attacks in Volgograd on December 29 and 30 are an ominous sign that the decision to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi may lead to one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of the Olympics.
Many of the 120,000 persons expected to visit the Olympics do not realize that they are walking into what effectively is a war zone.
The inability of the Russian authorities to prevent attacks was on display in Volgograd, a key connecting point for those en route to Sochi.
On December 29, a suicide bomber blew herself up in the entrance of the Volgograd railway station. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded with extraordinary security measures. The next day, on December 30, a suicide bomber in the same city blew himself up in a bus.
New Year’s Eve is the most important holiday in Russia but people in the major cities, including Moscow, are not in a celebratory mood.
The social media is full of warnings not to use public transport. In Volgograd, the local police are being flooded with reports about supposed new explosions and a number of factories have requisitioned buses to transport their employees to and from work.
In 2007, when Putin persuaded the Olympic Committee to choose Sochi, there were already powerful reasons to refuse. Russian representatives depicted Russia as a “young democracy” but political opposition had been suppressed and investigative journalists murdered.
At the same time, the Islamist insurrection was growing in the North Caucasus, directly adjacent to the proposed Olympic sites.
What tipped the balance in Sochi’s favor was Putin’s personal lobbying and a Russian offer of $12 billon in preparations, twice what was proposed by the other two candidates.
The choice of Sochi was treated, in the words of Dmitri Chernyshenko, who organized the bid, as “a key moment in Russian history.”
The Russian authorities began pouring money into grandiose transport and construction projects. It is common for Olympic infrastructure to end up costing twice the initial estimate but in Russia it cost $50 billion, more than four times the initial estimate, with $7 billion in contracts going to one of Putin’s childhood friends.
Reality, however, was beginning to close in. Russia had contained the Chechen revolt by granting absolute power and unlimited funding to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
He managed to pacify Chechnya with the help of terror but the insurgency outside of Chechnya was growing.
After the killing by Russian forces in 2005 of the Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, power passed to Doku Umarov, a Chechen field commander who announced that he was beginning a holy war to create an Islamic state from the Black Sea to the Caspian. The number of deaths spiraled, particularly in Dagestan.
In 2009, the Islamists turned to terror attacks in Russia proper. Umarov took credit for the bombing of a Moscow to St. Petersburg train in November 2009 in which 27 persons were killed, two suicide attacks in March, 2010 on the Moscow metro in which 40 persons were killed and the suicide bombing in January 2011 of the Domodedovo Airport in which 36 persons were killed and 160 injured.
Visitors to the Sochi Olympics now face several dangers that would have been avoided had the Olympic committee chosen a different location.
The first danger is from the terrorists. Despite a security zone around Sochi and a system of intensive identity checks, it is impossible to guarantee the security of Olympic visitors totally. Ahmad Kadyrov, the former president of Chechnya and the father of the present leader, was killed by a bomb that had been built into one of the supports of the Grozny stadium six months earlier. Terrorists can also attack transport hubs like Volgograd.
In addition to the danger from terrorists, however, there is also a danger from the Russian forces. As past experience shows, in a hostage situation, the Russians will make no effort to spare innocent lives. In 2002, when terrorists seized a Moscow theater and took nearly a thousand persons hostage, Russian forces flooded the hall with poison gas killing 129 hostages immediately.
In 2004, Russian forces attacked a school gymnasium in the southern town of Beslan full of hostages with grenade launchers and flame throwers killing 334 hostages, including hundreds of children.
The war that former Russian president Boris Yeltsin launched in 1994 against Chechnya was supposed to be a “short victorious war” that would boost Yeltsin’s sagging popularity. Instead, it set off a conflict that has been claiming victims for 19 years.
Because of the irresponsibility of the Olympic Committee in indulging Putin’s desire for a propaganda spectacular, the stage may now be set for there to be many more.
David Satter is an adviser to Radio Liberty and a fellow of the Hudson Institute and Johns Hopkins University. His latest book is It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.