Nothing darkens the mood over international sporting events quite like the threat of terrorism. Given recent terrorist incidents and threats in Russia, security concerns have dwarfed almost every other aspect of the Winter Olympic Games, which will run from Feb. 7 to 22 in Sochi, Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has guaranteed security. He has declared that he will do “whatever it takes” to protect athletes and visitors. He’s strengthened security across Russia in the wake of bombings that killed more than 30 people last month, and while he won’t elaborate on security measures, they include at least 37,000 personnel in the Sochi area.
Whether Mr. Putin’s guarantee means athletes and visitors are truly safe is another matter. Terrorists from the Caucasus region who’ve fought Russia for years have vowed to disrupt the games. A recent threat was issued via video involving two men believed to have been killed in last month’s suicide attacks. It warns of “a present … for you and all tourists who’ll come over… for all of the Muslim blood that’s been spilled” Also, Russian authorities are searching for at least one “black widow,” the name given to widows of terrorists who’ve died in suicide bombings or been killed by authorities.
China, a major country but a minor player in the Winter Olympics, doesn’t sound worried. It has issued a statement expressing confidence in Russia’s ability to ensure safety. Deputy Foreign Minister Cheng Guiping said China has “complete faith” in Russia’s security apparatus, and added that “China has been in close touch and coordinated with Russia about this.”
For its part, the United States is more guarded. It has offered Russia its “full support” but doesn’t expect Russia to ask for American aid.
Nevertheless, U.S. air and naval assets, including several transport aircraft in Germany and two Navy ships in the Black Sea, will be on hand, if for no other reason than to help evacuate U.S. athletes and tourists in the event of a terrorist attack at the Olympics. About 15,000 Americans are expected to attend the Sochi games, and even U.S. officials can’t agree about how safe they’ll be.
Although the State Department has issued a travel warning, former CIA and NSA director Mike Hayden, who trusts Russia’s security measures, said, “I think Americans will be quite safe.” Yet Sen. Angus King of Maine, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, “I don’t think I would send my family.”
House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers lamented that Russia is “not giving us the full story,” adding, “We don’t seem to be getting all of the information we need to protect our athletes.”
Such uncertainty hardly bodes well for an international event that Mr. Putin is counting on to showcase Russia to the rest of the world