On your marks, get set… intercept!

Listening two.jpg

Russia is devoting considerable effort to trying to ensure that the Sochi Winter Olympics are safe and secure. Mark Galeotti wonders whether the real concern is not an attack on the Games but the consolidation of the security state.

Mark Galeotti
29 October 2013

There is no question but that the Kremlin is turning every resource to trying to ensure that February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi are secure. After all, this is not just an opportunity to demonstrate sporting prowess but also a chance to prove that Russia can manage a complex and challenging international event. No wonder that President Vladimir Putin has said—warned, one might say—that it is ‘a matter of honour for the security services and special forces to do everything to ensure these events happen in a normal, celebratory atmosphere.’ Beyond that, though, Sochi is also a laboratory in which the Kremlin is testing capabilities and techniques which are likely subsequently to be used throughout the country and for rather more political ends.

The potential threats to Sochi are myriad. 

The potential threats to Sochi are myriad. In July, self-styled ‘Emir of the Caucasus’ Doku Umarov called on insurgents throughout the North Caucasus to use ‘maximum force… to disrupt these satanic games.’ Adygey Circassian nationalists, who consider the Olympic site of Krasnaya Polyana a place of special significance—it is built over the alleged site of a mass grave of Adygeys massacred in nineteenth century ethnic disturbances—may also stage attacks or protests. Indeed, the presence of foreign officials, athletes, spectators and media alike may encourage protesters of every stripe to seek to use the events to embarrass the Kremlin or push their own messages. Finally, the project has already proven a bonanza for organized crime and corrupt officials, which has already led to contract killings in Sochi (as well as Moscow) and there is the risk that the Games could see further mob conflicts.

Exclusion and prophylaxis

One of the best ways to prevent attacks or protests at the Games is to exclude potential perpetrators in the first place, something the Soviets practised in 1980 when, for the Moscow Olympics, suspected troublemakers, the homeless and dissidents alike were simply expelled from the city. Federal Law 310-FZ (2007) was used to establish a security zone around Sochi, stretching along about 100 kilometres of Black Sea coast and up to 40 kilometres inland. Within this area, demonstrations and gun sales will be banned, private car traffic limited and access controlled. Indeed, local residents considered potential risks may be required to move out of the zone for the duration of the games. Furthermore, although this has never been admitted, there are reasons to believe that companies from the North Caucasus were largely excluded from competition for public tenders in the construction work, and local labour was not hired out of a concern that they could be infiltrated by militants.


'Faster, higher, stronger!' Russia's security services are making full use of the Sochi Olympic slogan. CC flickr/Andrew Amerikov 

However, it seems that local firms did manage to pick up subcontract work and, even without North Caucasians, there was ample scope for the construction gangs to be infiltrated by jihadists from Tatarstan or Central Asia. This underlines the limitations of many Kremlin efforts to exclude ‘dangerous populations’ from Sochi. Too often they are simplistic (and even offensive) in their broad-brush assumptions and undermined in the execution. After all, realistically it is hard to see how the FSB will be able meaningfully to screen not just the 70,000 or so staff (including 25,000 volunteers from all over the Russian Federation) but also the expected 3.85 million visitors. Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has admitted that ‘serious work needs to be done‘ regarding screening visitors, in particular, and it is certainly true that even with greater international intelligence cooperation, this cannot be a comprehensive programme.

Meanwhile, the open question is how far intrusive measures will actually worsen the government’s standing in the region. An FSB spokesman has claimed that, in comparison with London during the 2012 Olympics, ‘Sochi will not be like a concentration camp,’ that security measures would be ‘invisible’ and ‘daily life inside [controlled] zones will be no different from normal.’ However, local residents seeking to complain about developments such as a new power plant have already found themselves under heavy pressure; the Olympic project has led to people being dispossessed or simply forced to live in virtual building sites. Considering that a soft touch is rarely a mark of the Russian security apparatus, it is likely that there will be many who feel alienated or angered once the full security regime locks into place in January.

Intelligence and eavesdropping

Of course, any efforts to exclude troublemakers and pre-empt plots will depend on accurate, timely intelligence. The FSB and the SVR [the foreign intelligence service] are fully committed to sniffing out plots against the Games. While the security operation overall is being coordinated by First Deputy Interior Minister Lt. General Alexander Gorovoy, the security services’ contribution is being managed by Major-General Evgeny Potanov, deputy head of the National Antiterrorism Committee (NAK). The actual operational headquarters is under Oleg Syromolotov, head of the FSB’s Counterintelligence Directorate. There are also efforts being made to extend intelligence cooperation with other countries to pool early-warning information, even if the Russians still tend to see ‘cooperation’ more in terms of what others can tell them than of building two-way streets.

The US State Department issued a warning encouraging travellers to self-censor their conversations. 

More broadly, Sochi is also being used as a testbed for an enhanced version of SORM, Russia’s domestic electronic eavesdropping system—and a pet project of Syromolotov’s. Not only are all the region’s ISPs required to install Omega, the ‘management point’ that allows the FSB to capture internet traffic, but the new 4G LTE network being established in Sochi by Rostelecom, Russia's national telecom operator, incorporates deep packet inspection systems that allow the FSB to both monitor and filter all cellphone and Wi-Fi traffic around Sochi. Indeed, the US State Department issued a warning encouraging travellers to self-censor their conversations, consider using a disposable ‘burner phone’ like so many drug dealers, and keep their Wi-Fi turned off at all times. Of course, it is unclear whether or not terrorists are likely to make much use of electronic communications, and whether the analytic capacity is there to make sense of all the data being swept up in this broad net. Nonetheless, there is no question that this provides a formidable capacity to control and eavesdrop on communications of every sort.


Russian police are listening in, but not neccessarily listening to the protests of Sochi residents. CC flickr/Andrew Amerikov

Kinetic solutions

The presence of large numbers of security forces in and around the region is meant not only to deter attacks but also, if they happen, to allow the authorities to swamp them in massive numbers and at high speed. Overall, some 25,000 police, 8,000 Interior Troops (including a special forces unit) and 20,000-30,000 regular soldiers will be on call in case of emergencies (around double the numbers deployed at the much larger London Olympics).

The skies will be controlled by Su-27 fighters, surface-to-air missiles, and up to 12 drones.

The FSB is also beefing up the Alpha counter-terrorist unit based in nearby Krasnodar, while its Border Troops will step up patrols along the nearby Georgian frontier (the Russians already claim to have foiled one Georgian attempt to arm terrorists) as well as along the coast. The front line of security in the Black Sea, though, will be the navy’s four brand-new Grachonok-class Type 21980 anti-saboteur patrol boats, carrying everything from marines and divers to sonar and anti-air missiles. Meanwhile, the skies will be controlled by Su-27 fighters from Krymsk airbase, Pantsir-S and S-400 surface-to-air missiles capable of bringing down a passenger airliner if need be, and up to 12 drones.

Again, though, a key aim is pre-emption, with a marked escalation of offensive operations in the North Caucasus. Following Putin’s urging that the security forces be more ‘daring,’ they have stepped up not only the number of operations but their scale. The aim is to prevent the insurgents from being able to devote resources to planning an operation against Sochi and simply to arrest, kill or demoralize as many as possible so as to force the jamaats, the local insurgent groups, to retrench. At present, though, this appears to have escalated the conflict without delivering any kind of a conclusive blow. Indeed, in Dagestan, violence has escalated, in part because local viceroy Ramazan Abdulatipov seems at least as interested in pursuing personal political feuds as bringing order to his country. Nonetheless, it is likely that it has forced the insurgent leaderships to concentrate on immediate tactical issues rather than longer-range strategic plans.


Moscow will reportedly be spending 57.8 billion rubles (US$2 billion) on security for the Sochi Games, more than twice as much as was spent on the previous 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. In part this reflects the scale of the operation, in part it is inflated by including vehicles and equipment which will subsequently go into regular service with the security forces, and in part this includes ‘padding’ likely to be lost to embezzlement. It is, however, a formidable commitment for a country facing serious economic challenges and with a desperate need for spending on infrastructure and social care.

In many ways the lasting legacy of Sochi will be the security measures trialled and applied there.

Nevertheless, no security is perfect and the Russians’ determination to rely on seasoned veterans—Deputy Interior Minister (and commander of the Interior Troops) Nikolai Rogozhkin has approvingly noted that many of the police officers drafted in were likewise involved in securing the 1980 Moscow Games—may also contribute to a degree of conservatism. This was evident in the Sochi-Counterterror-2012 exercise, which involved 6,000 security personnel wargaming how they would resist an insurgent assault using suicide bombs or numerous armed attackers. It is certainly the case that this is one viable scenario, but at least as likely would be a lone bomber, such as the woman in the Volgograd bus explosion, or even more exotic approaches. In February 2011, insurgents carried out several separate gun and bomb attacks on the Mount Elbrus winter resort in Kabardino-Balkaria which did relatively little harm but shut down the whole area.

A smaller-scale terrorist attack on Sochi, while a tragedy and an embarrassment for the Kremlin, would be unlikely to have any long-term consequences. A major incident, on the other hand, could severely undermine the Kremlin’s credibility, potentially playing to parties looking for a political change (which could just as easily be ‘Putinism without Putin‘ as reformists) or equally prompting the government into dramatic and heavy-handed reprisals in a bid to reassert its authority.

Barring such apocalyptic scenarios, in many ways the lasting legacy of Sochi will be the security measures trialled and applied there. The enhanced SORM electronic interception system is likely to be rolled out more generally, especially in Moscow and St Petersburg. New equipment such as drones and the Grachonoks will find a wider application. Furthermore, exercises run in Sochi, like the recent Zapad-2013 military exercises (when up to 20,000 Interior Troops were mobilized for a mock ‘counter-terrorism exercise’), are being used to practise crowd control and similar drills for potential domestic use.

Sochi may also provide a platform for newly-appointed deputy chief of the Interior Troops Viktor Zolotov—a favourite of Putin’s and formerly head of the Presidential Security Service—to prove himself so that he can take over from Rogozhkin on the latter’s imminent retirement, allowing the President to have a trusted ally in charge of the country’s main militarized security force. In other words, while Sochi will be over in a few months, the security implications may well last much longer.

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