Will the next Winter Games be in a war zone?

Bill Gillespie on the tougher security issues for the next Winter Olympics in Russia.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, with camera, takes the ski lift at the Krasnaya Polyana resort near Sochi in January 2010. Lots of snow there. ((Reuters) )

As the Vancouver Winter Games draw to a close this weekend, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson will hand the Olympic flag to IOC president Jacques Rogge, who in turn will hand it to Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov.

Sochi, Russia, is the home of the 2014 Winter Games.  

The summer the International Olympic Committee awarded the games to Russia, I paid 50 rubles ($1.75) to ride a rickety chairlift up its Olympic mountain. It's called Krasnaya Polyana, which means red meadow in Russian, and it's where all the ski events will be held.

Back in Soviet times, an all-expenses-paid family vacation in Sochi was a perk the state awarded only to its best workers. Even in summer, it wasn't hard to see why.

Nearing the top, the lush pine forest gave way to fresh alpine grass and trailing wisps of fog.  

Then, all of a sudden, soldiers.  

Armed men aren't that unusual in Russia. When I was the CBC Radio correspondent in Moscow from 2001 to 2005, even the security guards at the local rink where I took my son to play hockey on Saturday mornings carried Kalashnikovs.  

But here they were at the top of one of Russia's premier ski resorts. Near the soldiers, construction crews poured concrete for what looked like military bunkers.

Lift up your eyes

Maybe these were just footings for a new Olympic chairlift. But when I asked one of the soldiers what the workers were building, he pointed his assault rifle towards the mountains in the distance. 

The head of a Georgian design company displays a calendar with a gun-shaped parody of the Olympic rings. Defeated by Russia in a border conflict in 2008, Georgia is talking about forcing a boycott of the 2014 Winter Games at Sochi, which is near Georgia's Moscow-backed rebel region, Abkhazia. ((Reuters))

And with that gesture, the ruble dropped.  

Those nearby mountains were in Abkazia, a battleground just 18 months earlier, in August 2008, during a war between Russia and Georgia.  

Sochi and Abkazia are in the Caucasus Mountains, and a little farther down the Caucasus range is another trouble spot — Chechnya, about 400 kilometres to the east.  

Continue down the range and you will find four other Russian provinces with Islamist insurgencies on the boil.  

The violence in the Russian Caucasus has been under-reported by the Western media, but truck bombings, suicide attacks, assassinations, beheadings and gun battles are now a daily occurrence.

Does the IOC know this?

Putin's charm

In 2007, when the IOC awarded the games to Sochi, then Russian president Vladimir Putin put his prestige on the line by flying to Guatemala for the final selection meeting.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin talk at Russia's ski resort Krasnaya Polyana near Sochi in southern Russia, Jan. 3, 2010. A favourite gathering place for the elite, Russia's leaders clearly feel Krasnaya is a secure spot. ((Reuters))

Putin flattered the delegates by making them the first audience he had ever addressed in English.  

He ruefully reminded them that Russia and the Soviet Union had won more gold medals in the Winter Olympics than any other country but had never hosted the Games.  

What he didn't say, but everyone knew, was that the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow were ruined by a U.S.-led boycott to protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Putin also reminded the IOC delegates that, today, Russia's treasury is bulging with petrodollars. No matter how many billions it costs to build modern facilities in a remote region such as Sochi, he assured them, Russia would be good for it.  

Which is a good thing, because Sochi's airport isn't much to look at.  

In fact, the Soviet electrical grid in the area will have to be ripped out and replaced.  

Not to mention the 26 kilometres of tunnels that will have to be bored through 15 mountains to twin the existing road to the ski hill.

Insurgents on the rise

Putin soft-pedalled the security problems the Sochi Games might face. And at the time, it appeared the Chechen war might be petering out.  

Today, however, Sochi is looking like an increasingly dubious choice for an Olympic Games.

The Chechen war the Kremlin said was over has spread to the entire Caucasus.  

Russian police and soldiers clear the site of an explosion by Islamist insurgents near Nazran, in southern Russia, in August 2009. Over 20 people were killed. (Reuters)

Home-grown Islamist extremists who identify with al-Qaeda are battling the Russian military and local police daily in the Muslim-majority Russian provinces of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia.

The deadliest incident so far was a suicide truck bomb in Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia in August 2009. That blast killed 24 police officers and wounded 260 civilians.  

The rebel goal is to carve out an independent state governed by Sharia law, which they want to call the Islamic Caucasus Emirate.  

The violence didn't receive much media coverage outside Russia until last November when, in what was possibly an attempt to gain world attention, rebel leader Doku Umarov ordered his fighters to take the battle to the Russian heartland.

The result was a bomb on the high-speed luxury train between Moscow and St. Petersburg, an attack that killed 27 passengers.

A second look?

If those really were military bunkers I saw when I rode the chairlift to the top of Krasnaya Polyana 2½ years ago, they suggest that, even as Putin was courting the IOC delegates in Guatemala, he knew an attack on the Olympic ski hill would be a surefire way for the rebels to attract world attention.  

Here in peaceable Canada, some 15,000 soldiers, local police and every spare RCMP officer from Cape Spear to Esquimalt are guarding the Vancouver Games against terrorist attacks.  

After the Moscow-St. Petersburg train was bombed, the IOC's Jacques Rogge was asked whether he was worried about security for the Sochi Games.

He said he believed the Russians could handle it.  

But with Caucasus looking more and more like a war zone, Rogge might be wise to take a second look.