MOSCOW – President 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 in Sochi, the site of the Olympics, is watertight, so Islamist extremists have vowed to bring violence to the Russian heartland. Volgograd, 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 Sochi 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 members of the punk group Pussy Riot and the crew of a Greenpeace ship.
Although no groups have claimed responsibility for the Volgograd attacks, officials believe they were linked to an extremist group in Dagestan.
Russia has been engaged in a struggle with extremists ever since it defeated a separatist movement in Chechnya in the 1990s. After the war, a growing number of separatists turned radical, evolving into Islamist extremists who have launched sporadic terrorist attacks. 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 Olympics in Sochi, and demonstrating in the process the safety of the resort at the western end of the Caucasus 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 Olympic 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 fully 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, AP reported.
The heavy protection for Sochi appears to have drawn resources away from security operations in other parts of the huge country. On Monday, Putin met with the head of the 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 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.
On Friday, three people were killed in an explosion in Pyati-gorsk, in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, located south of Volgograd and east of Sochi. A bomb had been hidden in a car parked on a busy road near the offices of the traffic police.
The chance that terrorist activity will spoil the Olympics has been a prime worry for security officials — especially given the publicity generated by last April’s Boston Marathon bombings, carried out by two young men who were believed to be sympathetic to the Chechen separatist movement.
Doku Umarov, a Chechen rebel leader who authorities think is operating out of Dagestan and leading a movement to establish an Islamic emirate in southern Russia, in July called for resuming a campaign of terrorist attacks against civilian targets in Russia. He denounced the Sochi Games as a defilement of the sacred ground of the area’s original inhabitants, the Circassians.
Umarov has taken responsibility for several terrorist attacks, including a bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport in January 2011 that killed 37 people.
The United States has offered a reward of up to $5 million for information about Umarov, U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul said on Twitter on Monday.
Sunday’s bombing took place, according to officials, when a railroad inspector at a station entrance tried to stop a man who looked suspicious. The man detonated his explosives, killing 18, including the inspector.
The bomber was tentatively identified as a paramedic who had converted to radical Islam named Pavel Pechyonkin, a native of the Mari El region of Russia, farther north along the Volga.
The attack on the trolley bus Monday also appears to have been the work of a suicide bomber, officials said. The roof was blown off it, and windows in a building nearby were shattered. Investigators calculated that the bomber, a male, was carrying 4 kg of explosives. Fourteen people are confirmed dead.