Mettle test begins for the Sochi ring of steel

Measures to ensure the safety of competitors and spectators will be tough but unobtrusive.

Word on the street: Police have been brushing up on their foreign language skills to better communicate with Games visitors. Source: RIA Novosti

Nikolai Gorshkov, special to RBTH

After three suicide bombings in Volgograd in October and December that killed 41 people, the international spotlight is fixed firmly on Sochi. A widely held view is that the real target of the bombings was the Winter Olympics that extremists in the North Caucasus, who are fighting to establish a hardline Islamist state, had vowed to disrupt.

In a perverse way, the bombings were a signal to the authorities to beef up security across Russia and not just in and around Sochi. The comprehensive security arrangements for the Games, introduced as planned on January 7, one month before the opening ceremony, make an attack on Sochi fairly unlikely. “The security plan for Sochi is the most comprehensive ever implemented at a public event in Russia, and includes unprecedented deployments of human assets as well as advanced physical and electronic counter-terrorism measures,” says Steven Eke, senior analyst for Russia with Control Risks, a leading global security, political and risk consultancy based in London. “The scale of the security measures in place, in Control Risks’ view, mitigates against the likelihood of an attack on the sporting facilities.”

Staying in the zones

The principal measures activated on January 7 were two security zones: a restricted or controlled zone and a prohibited zone. To access the restricted zone, visitors need to produce tickets for the events and proof of identity. The tickets can only be bought after providing biographical and address information. The prohibited zone can only be accessed by specifically authorised personnel who have Games-related business there.

A traffic exclusion zone stretches for 60 miles across Greater Sochi and only allows in specially cleared transport, mostly public. Cars with non-Sochi registration must be left outside the zone at park-and-ride facilities. Even Sochi-registered cars are excluded from special Olympic lanes to guarantee the timely movement of athletes and Olympic personnel.The zones are manned by police, interior troops and units of the Ministry for Emergency Situations. The minister, Vladimir Puchkov, said that on January 7 all divisions responsible for ensuring guests’ security at the Games went on combat alert. “Every facility was put under protection and a space-based monitoring system was launched,” he added.

Police checks and street life

Bloggers in Sochi reported many police patrols in central Sochi during the New Year holidays from January 1 to 8. Pedestrians were stopped for ID checks and officers went house-to-house to enforce proper documentation and registration with local authorities. Foreign visitors in hotels were registered automatically by their hosts; foreign and Russian visitors in private accommodation have to register within three days of arrival.

Since January 7, local bloggers say, there have been fewer police on the streets but more checkpoints at transport hubs and other places where people gather. Some measures, such as frequent street ID checks and restrictions on private cars, have upset locals. They also cannot understand why rubbish bins have disappeared from most public places such as shopping arcades, a precaution reminiscent of London during the IRA bombing campaign.

But normal life goes on and visitors can expect to enjoy themselves in Sochi without any sense of being under constant surveillance. Indeed, the security measures will mean that the city is one of the safest places in the world to walk around or enjoy a drink and a meal in the bars and restaurants.

Mr Eke said: “Sochi is generally a peaceful and safe city with no history of terrorist attacks. . . Furthermore, the political prerogative attached to the project means that the authorities will do everything possible to ensure the Games pass off peacefully and without incident”.

The authorities appear confident about the security measures. Alexander Zhukov, the head of the Russian Olympic Committee, said after the Volgograd bombings that there was no need to take extra steps to secure Sochi, as “everything necessary already has been done”.

Easing restrictions

Contrary to some expectations that the Sochi security noose would be tightened even further after the bombings, President Vladimir Putin has relaxed some of the restrictions on holding public rallies in Sochi during the Games, with proper permission. But there has been no rush to request permission to hold rallies in the designated area, which is 12km (seven miles) from the nearest Olympic venues.

Mr Putin told Russian and international journalists on January 17 that Moscow was determined to do everything possible to ensure the security of athletes and spectators at the Games. He said: “We’ll try not to make the implementation of security measures intrusive, in your face, so that participants and guests do not feel pressure.”

Yet some observers in Russia and abroad are calling the security measures in Sochi unprecedented. However, the statistics may suggest otherwise.

Air, land and sea defences

It is estimated that up to 37,000 police officers and internal troops will be involved in protecting the athletes, visitors and locals. At London 2012 about 23,000 Army and security personnel were deployed in securing the Summer Olympics, but they patrolled a far smaller area. Greater Sochi, which stretches for almost 60 miles, is squeezed between the Black Sea coast and  alpine forests. Neither is easy to monitor and secure.

Air defence missiles, sonar weapons and high-speed boats featured in the arrangements for London and will do in Sochi. But missile systems have not been deployed on residential rooftops in the Russian resort.

A computer surveillance system called SORM will be used to monitor all internet and telephone traffic in and out of Sochi to detect and pre-empt any malicious activity. BT ran a similar exercise during the London Olympics but the biggest threat appeared to come from infected laptops of some journalists who did not bother to maintain proper antivirus software.

Aleksey Lavrishchev, a Russian Security Service (FSB) official responsible for security at Sochi, said that Russia had been collaborating with the national security bodies of more than 80 countries, including Britain and the United States. Some of these countries, Mr Lavrishchev said, will send their agents to help implement security measures.

To facilitate interaction between Russian and foreign security officials, as well as with athletes and visitors, Russian personnel have undergone crash courses in several foreign languages including English and French. There is also a call centre where Russian police officers will be able to get on-the-spot interpreting while dealing with foreign visitors to the 2014 Winter Olympics.

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