MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin’s daring bid to host the Winter Olympics in the politically dicey Caucasus Mountains was his way of showing to the world that he had created a stylish, fun-loving country, a Russia that had defeated violent separatism once and for all.
It was a gutsy gamble — and the remaining separatists vowed to do whatever they could to disrupt the pageant. The potential costs of failure were driven home Monday when an apparent suicide bomber shredded a crowded trolley bus in the city of Volgograd. That came on the heels of a bomb attack on the city’s railroad station the day before. The two explosions killed 31 people and injured dozens more.
Security at the site of the Olympics is watertight, so Islamist extremists have vowed to bring violence to the Russian heartland. Volgograd, only about 400 miles from Sochi, and a city storied in Russian history, offers itself as a tempting target.
Putin demanded a tightening of security Monday amid fears that foreign guests in particular could be frightened away from the Winter Games. The two bomb blasts effectively blunt his recent charm offensive, seemingly aimed at the West with the Olympics in mind, that saw the release of the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, two of the Pussy Riot members and the crew of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, held on criminal charges since late summer.
Although no groups claimed responsibility for the Volgograd attacks, officials said they believe they were related — and linked to an extremist group in Dagestan.
Russia has been engaged in an enduring and violent struggle with extremists ever since it defeated a separatist movement in Chechnya in the 1990s. After the war ended, a growing number of separatists turned radical, evolving into Islamist extremists who have launched sporadic terrorist attacks on the country, from Moscow to the hinterlands. They have also carried out a low-grade battle with authorities, now centered in the southern region of Dagestan, inflicting casualties among Russian interior forces that are more numerous than the U.S. military suffers in Afghanistan.
Putin has staked his prestige on hosting a successful winter Games in Sochi, and demonstrating in the process the safety of the resorts at the western end of the Caucasus mountain range.
The security agencies have been clamping down hard in Sochi, watching and calling in for questioning those who express unwelcome opinions, including environmental and human rights activists. Russia is spending $2 billion on security there.
As the Vedomosti newspaper put it in a recent editorial: “The authorities want to clear the area around Sochi from any disgruntled elements that could compromise a positive image of the country as the host of the Olympics games. Nobody seems to care that the current unwillingness to maintain a dialogue with society may adversely affect the course of events after the Olympics.”
IOC President Thomas Bach is confident Russian authorities will deliver a “safe and secure” Olympics in Sochi despite the two deadly suicide bombings in southern Russia that heightened concerns about the terrorist threat to the Games, the Associated Press reported.
Heavy protection for Sochi appears to have drawn resources away from security operations in other parts of this huge country. On Monday, Putin met with the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service and directed him to prepare plans for heightened security nationwide.
The National Anti-Terrorist Committee announced Monday that more than 4,000 security personnel will be involved in a huge security sweep in Volgograd. Volunteers were also being organized to patrol the sprawling city along the Volga River, where Soviet and Nazi forces met in an epic World War II battle in 1942 and 1943, when the city was known as Stalingrad. That history gives Volgograd a definite resonance in Russians’ imagination, even though the country has become somewhat inured to random acts of terror.