Recent Bombings in Russia: A Threat to the Sochi Games?

On December 27, 2013, three people died when a car bomb exploded in the Russian city of Pyatigorsk. A homemade, vehicle-borne explosive device detonated with such force that it tore the car apart and killed three passersby. Two days later, a suspected suicide bomber struck the largest railroad station in Volgograd, a city located between Moscow and Sochi, a Black Sea resort city that will be home to the Olympic Games in February 2014. Sixteen people were killed and scores more wounded, many critically. A third explosion occurred on December 30, when a bomb aboard a Volgograd trolley reportedly killed 14 people and wounded 28. These attacks may portend an increased threat to athletes, officials, and bystanders, as violence in Russia seems to be escalating in the lead-up to the Sochi Olympic Games.

Q1: Who is likely responsible for these attacks?

A1: Although no group has yet stepped forward to claim responsibility, many experts suspect that North Caucasus militants may be to blame. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, two brutal separatist conflicts have pitted the North Caucasus republic of Chechnya against Russia. While Russia has imposed a degree of stability within Chechnya in recent years, violence appears to have increased in the neighboring republics, including but not limited to Dagestan and Ingushetia. Russian security forces continue to clash regularly with various North Caucasus militant groups, including some groups which advocate radical, often violent forms of Islam. For example, in 2007, the Caucasus Emirate emerged in the region as a self-determined entity with a military arm. Both Russia and the United States have designated the Emirate as a terrorist organization, and the UN Security Council designated it as associated with al Qaeda.

In the past, such militants have used well-known terrorist tactics, such as utilizing female suicide bombers and attacking “soft” targets like schools, theaters, and public transportation. While there are few leads on the bombers responsible for the recent attacks, preliminary reports suggest that a female suicide bomber may have been responsible for at least one of the attacks, all of which were against civilian “soft” targets. Given that such tactics are a hallmark characteristic of violent extremism and given the attacks’ close proximity to the Caucasus region in southern Russia, many experts are suspicious of North Caucasus involvement.

Q2: What is the likely threat to the Olympic Games?

A2: In June 2013, North Caucasus militant leader Doku Umarov released a video statement in which he “called on his followers to ‘use maximum force’ to put a stop to the Games” and lifted a ban on killing innocent civilians. Many fear that militants will take advantage of the international attention that the Olympics bring to Russia and will use violence before and during the Games to degrade Russia’s international reputation.

Though the Olympics may represent an attractive opportunity for militants to launch attacks, the Games themselves may not prove to be the most opportune target. Security measures are reportedly extensive, including deployment of 100,000 security personnel, use of surveillance drones, monitoring of all Internet and phone traffic, and employment of numerous vehicle checkpoints. Such measures may render Sochi too difficult for militants to strike effectively. Further, attacks against the Games, particularly those that might kill or injure international visitors, could spark international outrage against the militants, who have largely confined themselves to targeting only Russian interests. Not only would such an attack represent a fundamental shift in militant strategy, but it could unite the international community against the cause of North Caucasus separatism.

That said, by drawing Russian security forces from elsewhere in the country, security measures in Sochi may make other targets, such as Moscow, vulnerable to attack. Because all eyes will be on Russia during the Games, militant groups may choose to target cities and “soft” targets across Russia—avoiding Sochi—either to make Russia appear weak or to provoke international condemnation if Russian forces launch a response deemed too brutal by the global community.

Q3: Is there an opportunity for U.S.-Russia cooperation during the games?

A3: Calls have emerged for greater security cooperation between the United States and Russia to help mitigate vulnerabilities and strengthen security before and during the Olympic Games. Shortly following the attacks, the White House issued a statement condemning them and offering support to the Russian government. “The U.S. government has offered our full support to the Russian government in security preparations for the Sochi Olympic Games, and we would welcome the opportunity for closer cooperation for the safety of the athletes, spectators, and other participants,” the statement concluded. There were similar calls for cooperation following the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013, when the White House and the Kremlin issued a joint statement to “advocate continued cooperation” and to underscore the “need to deepen further means to promote international security.”

In spite of these declarations, cooperation between the two countries has been elusive. There is limited information sharing between the two nations, and security relations remain strained. Further, continued disagreement over Russia’s “counterterrorism” operations in the North Caucasus has served to limit cooperation in this area. While Russia claims that its efforts in the North Caucasus region are part of a global war on terror, many in the United States are concerned about “‘disproportionate’ methods that violate the human rights of innocent bystanders,” used to quell separatism in the name of counterterrorism. Moreover, there appears also to be growing mistrust bilaterally. While criticism of certain Russian counterterrorism policies has decreased in recent years, most notably after a major attack on a Moscow theater in 2002, the United States remains wary of Russian tactics and human rights abuses in the region.

Continued challenges to the relationship—including a history of mistrust and current disagreements on human rights issues—may serve to jeopardize efforts toward counterterrorism cooperation. However, the Olympics could open a broader bilateral dialogue and present an opportunity to jointly strengthen international security and counterterrorism efforts.

Ana O’Harrow is an intern with the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Stephanie Sanok Kostro is acting director of the CSIS Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Stephanie Sanok Kostro and Ana O’Harrow