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Securing Sochi: Security Theatre and Realities

Series on Sochi 2014

February 18, 2014

Series on Sochi

This article is part of the Ellison Center blog Series on Sochi. Click here to read more as we cover the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Russia! 


By Sarah McPhee

Police patrol the Olympic Park during the London 2012 Games. Flickr | The Department for Culture, Media and Sport

Police patrol the Olympic Park during the London 2012 Games. Flickr | The Department for Culture, Media and Sport

“It’s like holding the Olympic Games in Kabul!”

This description of Sochi by Russian policy analyst Arkady Ostrovsky only seems like irresponsible hyperbole. According to Caucasian Knot and, between 2010 and the present day, more people died because of violence in the Caucasus region than coalition forces in Afghanistan. In the fall, there was a reported buildup of Russian interior special forces, fortified with tanks, armored vehicles, and Mi-8 helicopters, in preparation for the Sochi Olympics. Whether the FSB was tracking the Volgograd attacks and failed, or the attacks took them by surprise, anti-terror operations occurred in the region just prior to the games. Female militant leader and terror suspect Eldar Magatov was killed in Dagestan as a result, about a week before the games began.

The high-profile nature of the Olympic Games, as well as the world leaders in attendance, create a tempting target for terror. The Russians have obviously taken security very seriously in Sochi, and most spectators and athletes report feeling secure within the “ring of steel” — albeit often highly inconvenienced. According to sports journalist David Epstein, since the tragedy of the Munich Games, the security bill for the Olympics has become increasingly burdensome, topping out with Beijing at $6.5 billion for security alone. China, an authoritarian state, was compelled to spend a great deal more on security for Beijing 2008, requiring 110,000 additional security officers to ensure the event went smoothly. In contrast, in 2002 Salt Lake City spent $320 million, 2004 Athens spent $1.5 billion, 2010 Vancouver only spent $1 billion, while London increased security spending to $1.5 billion in 2012.

It is unclear how much of Russia’s $52 billion expenditure will have been devoted to security, but the fact that governments as secretive as China will release such information allows for what political sociologists Haggerty and Boyle describe as the “expressive dimension of security at the Games,” a bit of theatre that “provides a windowsill into wider issues of how authorities ‘show’ they can deliver on the promise of maximum security under conditions of radical uncertainty.” The main goal in security theatre is to feign control over the uncontrollable.

Long lines, spectator passes, searches and FSB communications monitoring, revealed as part of the security theater well before the Games, have aided in the secure “feeling” of Sochi thus far. The conflict in the Caucasus emerged in the Yeltsin era, but despite President Vladimir Putin’s better efforts to appear in control, terrorist attacks have persisted over the course of his leadership. Researcher Alejandro Nieto linked the chain of security failures arising from the Caucasus region, demonstrating the resolve of the groups in the region and the seriousness of the issue to the Russian people:

…the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis; the February 2004 metro bombings that killed 50 people; the Beslan Hostage Crisis in Vladikavaz, North Ossetia in September 2004; the November 2009 explosion that derailed an express train; the March 2010 Moscow metro bombing that killed 38 people; and…the January 2011 bombings of the international terminal at Domededovo International airport, which claimed the lives of over 20 people and left 200 injured. The fact that militant organizations can infiltrate high profile and also public locations in Moscow means that it will be all the easier for them to do so in their own territory (like Sochi).

During the Cold War, both the United States and the USSR funded terrorist organizations destined to make trouble for the other rival in an extension of the proxy war that defined the second half of the twentieth century. Security expert Alan Collins explained that because “[t]oday, there are no competing superpowers, and overt support for terrorist groups can generate a massive military response, as the Taliban regime in Afghanistan discovered … terrorist organizations have developed networks that provide mutual assistance.” Therefore, the group that was responsible for the Volgograd bombings may have nothing to do with more organized threats in the region, or they may have been working loosely on an ad hoc basis with a stronger cell. Eliminating one small cell does very little to increase actual security, but occasionally a high value target may cripple some criminal agency for a short time.

Russia’s primary high value target at this time is Doku Umarov, a Chechen separatist warlord and self-styled Emir of the Caucasus Emirate. He confirmed he ordered the January 2011 attack at Moscow airport and the 2010 suicide bombings in the city’s metro. His group poses a major security issue for the success of the Sochi Olympics, even the US Department of State is offering a multi-million dollar reward. According to a senior researcher for the Monterey Institute for International Studies, the Emirate has a great deal of support in the region among those who value the groups religious education outreach and youth training. Umarov has vowed to disrupt the Olympic Games, though the Russian security forces seem to despite all the internal security troops in the region, Umarov remains at large.

Sarah is a 2015 REECAS MAIS student. Read more articles by Sarah here.

Works Cited

Alan Collins, Contemporary Security Studies, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 274.

Boyle, P. and Haggerty, K.D.  (2012) “Planning for the Worst: Risk, Uncertainty and the Olympic Games,”  The British Journal of Sociology. 63: 242. 10.1111/j.1468-4446.2012.01408.x.

Castles in the Sand.” (July 13, 2013) The Economist.

Epstein, D. (September 9, 2011) “Olympic Games after September 11: More Expensive, Less Patriotic,” Sports Illustrated Online.

Nieto, W.A.S. (2011) “The Olympic Challenge: Russia’s Strategy for the Establishment of  Security in the North Caucasus before 2014.” Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 24: 589. 10.1080/13518046.2011.624459.

Hahn, Gordon M. (May 2010). ”Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report.” Monterey Institute of International Studies. N.p., Report 14  910.

Reuters. (January 21, 2014). “UPDATE 2-Russian police kill Islamist militant leader before Olympics.”