On December 29, as many Russians were traveling for the upcoming New Year’s holiday, a suicide bomber blew up the entrance to the train station in the southern city of Volgograd, followed by another suicide bombing on a trolley bus less than twenty-four hours later. The explosions, which came on the heels of a bus bombing there in October that killed six, left thirty-four people dead and raised doubts about the security of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, 400 miles south of Volgograd and next door to Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region. In a video published in January, two men claiming affiliation with an Islamic terrorist group in the North Caucasus took credit for the Volgograd attacks and threatened further attacks at the Sochi Games. Gregory Shvedov, editor of the Internet resource Caucasian Knot, which is well-known for its independent coverage of the region, spoke with The Nation about the conflict in the North Caucasus—which the International Crisis Group has called “the most violent in Europe today”—its historical roots, and how it could affect the Sochi Olympics.
AL: Why was Volgograd chosen as the target of these attacks?
GS: The first factor you have to take into consideration is that Volgograd, like Sochi, is outside the North Caucasus federal district. The ability to carry out this double attack says that those who are organizing them attacks have the resources to leave the North Caucasus and organize similar ones, especially since it was complicated to do a double bombing….
The second factor is that besides the bombing in Volgograd in October, there was a double bombing attempt on August 7. Double bombings happened even earlier in Volgograd: there were explosions in April 2011, when the targets were also, as in August, Interior Ministry buildings. This shows that Volgograd has for a long time been on the map of the people who plan and organize double bombings, which are characteristic of these terrorists and have unfortunately been used many times in the North Caucasus.
Finally, there’s the symbolic factor that this is a celebrated city known as Stalingrad that demonstrated the power of the Soviet leadership and the people to withstand threats in World War II—to protect, in some sense, the rest of the Soviet Union from attack. Now Volgograd is showing its vulnerability, and our Russian leadership is demonstrating an inability to answer modern threats. The attack on such a city demolishes the myth of a strong state.
AL: How much of a threat do you think terrorists pose to the Olympics, and has your opinion changed after the recent bombings in Volgograd?
GS: To use a five-point scale, the chance of terrorist attack is high—four out of five…. Volgograd is located a lot farther from the North Caucasus than Sochi is, and penetrating the Krasnodar region, where Sochi is located, is a lot easier than penetrating Volgograd.
AL: But isn’t security much more intense in Sochi?
GS: Sochi is stretched out along about 140 kilometers. It’s a huge area that includes the Black Sea and mountains; it’s too hard to control. Secondly, Sochi is bordered by the North Caucasus mountains, and there are a lot of roads, including many that aren’t on any maps or are little-known, that could be used [by terrorists].
Third, Sochi is bordered by [Georgia’s largely unrecognized breakaway region] Abkhazia, and…even though Russian security forces control this region, they don’t control it completely. Recently, a Russian diplomat was killed in its capital. Unfortunately, Abkhazia’s proximity to Olympic venues is another vulnerability factor, especially since there are huge amounts of explosives and people with experience in war there.
The fourth challenge is the railways, which are hard to protect because they run through many villages, beaches and other public places. Enforcing a curfew all the time would probably be impossible…and to do so over all this territory would be difficult.