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Warships for Sochi

Conor DillonFebruary 7, 2014

If the 2014 Winter Olympics is a stage, the backdrop is a constant threat of terror. The US is responding aggressively in terms of security. If it steps on Russian toes, experts say, it's for very American reasons.

US destroyer SEIRON BAROIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: SEIRON BAROIAN/AFP/Getty Images

The announcement that toothpaste tubes might potentially be used for Sochi-related terrorism on flights bound for Russia is just the latest in a string of Winter Olympics threats to which the US has responded forcefully and on its own.

The threats themselves are very real and dangerous, says Gary LaFree, who directs the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). His organization recently studied patterns of terrorism in Olympic host countries prior to and during the Olympic games, using data that went back to 1972. The case is "strong," he says, that no other Olympic games have had security threats as high as this one.

"You probably have more expressed willingness to stage attacks in this case than any other [Olympic event] that I can think of," he told DW. "You actually have people making credible threats."

Two men dressed in black speak to the camera in front of a dark flag with a white circle.
A group called Vilayat Dagestan claimed it was responsible for the Volgograd attacksImage: Reuters/Handout via Reuters Television

Generally, terror attacks in Russia have been on the increase since the collapse of the Soviet Union, he says. And though the December 2013 attacks in Volgograd and the threat of "black widow" suicide bombers have carried recent headlines, LaFree's concerns lie in the capacity of its most violent Islamist separatist group, Caucasus Emirate, to carry out attacks on a horrifying scale.

"They're willing to take 1,000 hostages, many of them kids," he said, referencing the 2004 Beslan school attack in which 380 died. "The hostage situations have been record-breaking in terms of the numbers of live lost."

US 'overreacts'

In addition to airport security controls and strong travel warnings from the State Department, the US has responded to threats in Sochi with another unusual display of force: Two US warships carrying a combined 500 marines entered the Black Sea on Wednesday (05.02.2014). While they are not to cross Russia's maritime boundary nor dock at Sochi, a port city of 350,000, they will, the Pentagon says, give "full support to the Russian government" and evacuate Americans via helicopter in the event of an attack. The US ski and snowboarding team, meanwhile, has hired a private US security firm to provide additional protection.

Russian expert Pavel K. Baev, whose career began in the Soviet Union's defense ministry and has led to his current nonresident senior post with the Brookings Institute think tank in Washington D.C, considers the warships an "overreaction."

"I think it is really going too far in the risk assessments," he told DW. Moving combat ships in the Black Sea, he added, doesn't look good in the context of the Olympic spirit. "Even if Sochi goes perfectly smoothly, the aftertaste will still be there. The spoilers, many of them, have already done their damage."

Jeff Mankoff, a former US State Department advisor on US-Russia relations and current deputy director of Russia and Eurasia at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, sees the move as an "abundance of caution." He also says it's a political calculation aimed at US Congress.

Though groups in Russia might be offended, he says, that beats "having to deal with the political fallout" of being unprepared for an attack, as happened when the US embassy was attacked in Benghazi, Libya.

Boston bombers

Both experts agree that a large part of America's anti-terror logic in Sochi is based on lessons learned from the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013.

In Boston, the US discovered for the first time that events in distant Chechnya could become an American problem. That in turn led to a mutual anti-terrorism campaign between the US and Russia to quell Islamist violence in the North Caucasus region, home to a mixed and disorganized group of militants.

The Olympic rings are held up before a mountainous backdrop.
Putin has promised a "ring of steel" that will surround and protect Sochi festivitiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But where the US saw a natural extension of that exchange in the Sochi Olympics, Russia viewed Boston as the exception. "The obstacles are structural as much as anything else," Mankoff says.

Baev views Russia's behavior more critically. In Sochi, Moscow is not "fully cooperating" on intelligence sharing, he says, which has gradually caused collaboration to break down between the two.

Stay home?

If Russia is being secretive, Baev also sees another Americanism at play with regard to Sochi: its citizens, he says, feel that terrorism "very particularly targets them," a fact which informs Washington's reaction to terror threats and which causes it, at times, to sidestep diplomacy and step on toes.

That sentiment does not exist in Germany. Publicly, the German government has given no indication that the games are any different than London in 2012 or Vancouver in 2010. The website of Germany's Federal Foreign Office does mention "concrete threats" and to avoid public places, but generally it "advises travelers who will be visiting the winter games to carefully follow the instructions of the Russian security personnel." When contacted by DW, a spokesperson at Germany's Federal Foreign Office declined to comment on whether the country was taking exceptional security measures in Sochi.

As for terrorism expert Gary LaFree, he's advising no one to go there.

"All things equal, I probably wouldn't send my kids to Sochi," he said.