MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a high-stakes risk with the Winter Games in Sochi, guaranteeing that they will be safe, despite their setting on territory awash in grievance and terror. Olympic officials have accepted his assurances, but as the opening ceremony nears, so do the jitters.
In the past few days, police in Sochi have begun a search for three women identified as potential suicide bombers. On Sunday, an Islamist militant group posted a video threatening an attack on the Games. Last month, suicide bombers struck the main train station in Volgograd and a city trolley bus, killing 34. Nearly every day, police engage in shootouts with militants in Dagestan, 380 miles east of Sochi. The search has jangled nerves even as it focuses attention on the vast security effort the Russian government has mobilized in Sochi.
Putin has deployed up to 60,000 police personnel, troops and special forces to Sochi — double the number Britain enlisted in London for the 2012 Summer Games. The security services have the technology in place to monitor phone calls, e-mails and Internet activity in Sochi, among Russians and foreigners alike. In November, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gave an order permitting the collection of telephone and e-mail metadata from foreign journalists, Olympic officials and athletes, according to journalists here. The Pentagon has offered air and sea support, including two Navy ships in the Black Sea, if needed.
With the Feb. 7 opening ceremony fast approaching, Putin told television journalists in an interview broadcast over the weekend that a prepared Russia knows what it must do.
“We have a perfect understanding of what it is, what is that threat, how to stop it, how to combat it,” he said. “I hope that our law enforcement agencies will deal with it with honor and dignity, just as it was during other major sports and political events.”
Still, police fliers in Sochi warning about the three suspected female terrorists have set off widespread anxiety. One of the suspects, the 22-year-old wife of a slain Islamist militant, could be in Sochi, the leaflets said. The fliers did not mention whether the other two women, also shown wearing veils, might be in Sochi.
The circulars raised widespread fear about the widows of militants from the North Caucasus, near Sochi, who might carry out suicide bombings as revenge. Known as “black widows,” they have haunted the Russian imagination since two women blew themselves up on Moscow subway trains in 2010. Warnings about these kinds of suspects, or other potential terrorists, are not uncommon in the capital.
“It’s normal for Moscow,” said Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist who has written extensively about the Russian security services. “But Sochi is completely different. It’s supposed to be a closed fortress.”
The city was “closed” Jan. 7, when non-Sochi cars were denied access and intense security measures went into effect. “There are patrols everywhere,” said Soldatov, who remains nervous about security there.
“I’m quite worried about the large number of troops,” he said, “which might be important if you are thinking of a large-scale attack, but in Sochi you should be thinking about intelligence.”
“They confuse control with security,” he added.
Soldatov, who has reported on the extensive electronic monitoring planned at the Olympics, said that after hostage-takings at a Moscow theater in 2002 and at a school in Beslan in 2004, the security services were overhauled to train to deal with large-scale attacks. “They are prepared for Beslan,” he said, “but not a smaller-scale attack in Sochi.”
The White House said Tuesday that President Obama had spoken to Putin by phone about their shared interest in “a safe and secure Sochi Olympics.” The Pentagon said U.S. military officials in Brussels had proposed sharing techniques to combat homemade bombs if they were compatible with Russian equipment.
Dagestan militants are widely perceived as the area’s biggest threat, but the region boils with resentment, including among ethnic Circassians who have been aggrieved since czarist times, when they were driven from their land around Sochi and died in great numbers. And then there’s pervasive corruption, raising concerns about a terrorist buying his way in.
“It’s a really tough gig,” said Mark Galeotti, a scholar of Russian crime and security at New York University who is in Moscow. “It’s not a particularly easy place to police and control. They are hoping quantity will substitute for quality. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Everyone will encounter more than one checkpoint, Galeotti said, so even if a bribe works once, it might not a second time. Unparalleled technology, he said, allows the ability to shut down all cellular communication very quickly if any fears arise about remote-controlled bombs. And even though the Russians have not been able to infiltrate Dagestan’s loose confederation of militants, there’s a lesson in the daily shootouts.
“They are sending the boys out to kick down doors of everyone who has ever been a friend of a terrorist,” Galeotti said, “on the theory that if people are afraid of being shot or arrested, they might not be talking about perpetrating dark deeds in Sochi.”
It’s the threat of an unnoticed individual that worries Alexey Malashenko, co-chair of the religion, society and security program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“In Dagestan, we have a real civil war’’ that creates a volatile landscape, he said. “It’s a battlefield, and it’s unpredictable. If something happens in Sochi, it will be individual terror, not organized by a group but by an individual, like in Boston. It’s a real threat.”
As for the black widows and other suicide bombers, Galeotti said he is not unduly alarmed by the leaflets, which he said can terrify a potential bomber as much as an intended target. “They believe everyone is looking for them,” he said, “and these kind of campaigns tend to unnerve them.”
The Russians have reduced the probability of an attack as low as they can, Galeotti said, adding:
“No security is ever guaranteed, but I think Sochi will be safe.”