Security at Sochi: A Primer Through History

With opening ceremonies set for tomorrow, the world’s eyes have begun to shift to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Much attention has been paid to the athletes who will represent their countries. Still more to the role Russia’s anti-LGBT regulations will play in the games, and to the fact that these are the most expensive Olympics ever.

But the other important factor playing into this year’s Olympics is the security issues that surround it. This is true for every Olympics, and for every World Cup, and for any event that draws global attention. But this winter’s event especially calls for these concerns: Sochi, as The New York Times puts it, is located in the shadow of a warzone.

The Olympics also arrive on the back of recent tragedy. About 600 miles from Sochi, twin suicide bombings in the Russian city of Volgograd killed 34 people and injured scores more in late December.

The attacks magnified a growing concern about the security situation in the press. Since then, the media has been alight with stories of “black widows” infiltrating Sochi, Chechen-born militants, and threats from the Caucasus Emirate militant network and it’s spectre-like leader Dokka Umarov.

In order to clear some of the air, and to hopefully breathe some life into a more informed conversation, let’s take a step back, do a little history, and answer some questions.

What the heck is a ‘Caucasus’?


The Caucasus Mountains are a mountain system stretching between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The Caucasus have played an important role in the long term development and history of Eurasian continent, as they’ve served as a sort of natural barrier between Asia and Europe. An incredibly diverse area both ethnically and linguistically, the mountains have shaped both the lives of the people native to the region, and the fortunes of those who have sought to bring the former into the fold of their empires.

The focus today is the security situation in the region on the mountain system’s northern face, which lies within the modern day Russian Federation and is often referred to as the North Caucasus. The region is made up of semi-autonomous constituent Republics of the Russian Federation, many of of which host Muslim majority populations, and include Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, and Adygea. Additionally, the North Caucasus region also includes parts of Stavropol Krai and Krasnodar Krai.

So what happened in this region, and why is it associated with violence?

It’s a very long history, and is certainly deserving of its own rich and detailed annals, so I especially apologize for the briefness of the answer.

Though the Caucasus’ unique geographic position has afforded a rich and strong cultural identities, it has also tragically produced the region a great deal of conflict and war. By the mid-18th century the Russian Empire intended the claim the region through a series of military campaigns. The subsequent Caucasian Wars lasted nearly a century and left many legacies which still permeate into the minds and sensibilities of the peoples that experienced them.

For Russians, their encounters with the people of the Caucasus satisfied some whim of adventurism. The region became associated with a sort of frontier of romantic lawlessness. Many great Russian writers of the 19th and early 20th century spent time stationed in the Caucasus while serving the Tsar’s armies and set some of their most famous works within the mountains.

To the locals, the experience resonates as the beginning of a still-present system of foreign central authority, brutal in its tactics and systematic in its delimitation of ethnic groups and culture. Notably, the Russian military authorities of the region oversaw the mass expulsion of the Circassian people from the Caucasus to Ottoman Empire in the 1860s, during which many perished. It was also during these times that Imam Shamil, the Chechen leader of the mountain resistance which helped unify the Chechen nation in the 19th century, was imbued in the hearts and minds of the Chechen people.

And how does Chechnya come into play?

Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. The invasion prioritized securing the rich natural resources of central and southern Russia, specifically the oil rich fields of Baku in the South Caucasus. The Nazis were dislodged by 1943, and though their campaign had barely reached Chechnya’s border, the small nation bore a massive burden of guilt in the eyes of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

Stalin accused the Chechens (and their ethnic brothers, the Ingush) of actively collaborating with the Nazis and participating in a rebellion and an insurgency against Soviet forces. As punishment, he ordered the entirety of the ethnic population from their homeland and sent them to Central Asia and Siberia. Huge numbers of people died during the subsequent exile, and the events have been likened to what the Holocaust means for Israel: A national tragedy which pushed a people to the brink of extinction.

The Chechens were only allowed to return after Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956 and began to roll back many projects and administrative actions he had carried out. However, nearly 13 years of Russification had done its damage, and those who returned were greeted with less than open arms. Political positions and  economic roles in the local government were filled by Russian settlers, and the Chechen language was discouraged from public life.

Why wasn’t Chechnya granted independence after the Soviet collapse?

The Soviet Union was in a full state of collapse by 1991. In Chechnya, like many other constituent parts of the Soviet Union at the time, nationalist sentiments reached a crescendo. In November of 1991, the republic unilaterally declared independence from the Russian Federation. This wasn’t exactly a unique act of defiance — other regions had made similar declarations — but Chechnya’s was different from others because its very legal status in the Soviet Union was different than the others.

The USSR (and the Russian Federation today) was an ethno-federalist state. That means the statuses of its constituent parts were determined by varying measures of certain ethnic compositions and levels of organization within them. Each had varying degrees of autonomy — some were parts of the larger Soviet Union, other were parts of the parts of the Soviet Union — and these varying degrees determined who was granted independence.

There is a lot of nuanced history behind ethnic delimitation and determination of the varying degrees of autonomous status of certain titular minority groups in the Soviet Union. So, without diving too deep, we’ll just finish with this: Chechnya did not have the same levels of administrative autonomy that the other newly independent republics had. It was a smaller constituent piece of the then-Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) of the larger Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) that was then granted a similar semi-autonomous Republic status in the newly established Russian Federation following the Soviet collapse.

(Or, if you want to get dreadfully precise: Chechnya was one of two nations that formed the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, which itself was a constituent piece of the larger Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, which was one of the 15 Union Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).)

Why did Russia invade Chechnya in the ‘90s?

As explained above, Chechnya unilaterally declared independence from the Soviet Union in November 1991. Thus, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist and the Russian Federation was declared on December 25th 1991, the de facto independent Chechnya did not view itself as being a part of it. Democratic elections were held in Chechnya at the time of its declaration and one the most visible figures in the Chechen nationalist movement became the unrecognized country’s first president. This man was Dzhokhar Dudayev, the highest ranking Chechen soldier in the Soviet Armed Forces.

It’s quite clear clear why the Russia’s would disagree with a move toward Chechen independence. But there are a variety of reasons why the Russian Federation chose to actually respond militarily over the issue in 1994. And, naturally, people tend to argue which reasons were more pressing to Russian military minders and politicians.

For the three years that Chechnya had been been independent, Russia lacked the capacity to act upon Chechnya’s declaration. With each passing day of unchallenged independence, Dudayev was symbolically winning a victory against Yeltsin and the power in Moscow. Moreover, Chechnya was not a particularly safe place after its independence and the unruliness born from the small area was becoming of issue to Russia. Thanks to porous borders and the geographic neighborhood, crime was widespread and pervasive, small arms and other weapons were freely exchanged, and organized crime groups used the restive region as haven for activity.

The inability to act since 1991 and the continued overspill of unrest was a sore spot for Yeltsin. It not only seriously challenged his legitimacy in implementing the rule of law, but the eroding situation in Chechnya would no doubt hurt his aspirations for a second term as president. So, the official line for the first war was to “restore constitutional order” to the country. Russian politicians made sure to also remind people that the Russian constitution did not allow for secession, and thus Chechnya’s declaration of independence was illegal.

Further, a large fear of Yeltsin and his cadre was that the independence movement in Chechnya would have demonstrative effects in other constituent parts of the Russian Federation that had large, organized, titular minority groups. This was especially true for other Muslim areas of the country like Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. Though the likelihood such moves waned as the years since the Soviet Collapse passed, a flagrant display of insubordination to federal rule in the Chechen case could conceivably spark other groups as well.

Finally, some have asserted that oil was a key reason. Chechnya does have an indigenous oil supply, and it was a major transport hub of petroleum bound for the the rest of the country. However, oil extraction in Chechnya accounted for about 1.5 percent of the total production for the Soviet Union by the mid-1980s. By 1993, estimates put Chechnya’s oil reserves at modest 30 million tons, meaning it wouldn’t even come anywhere near the top 50 list of proven reserves in the world. Oil is assumed, however, to have played an important role in the internal struggle for power in Chechnya in the lead-up to the conflict.

How bad were the wars in Chechnya?

Quite bad, and their size and scope are rather important in understanding the current security situation in the region.

A bus carrying the mothers of soldiers in Chechnya, 1995.

A bus carrying the mothers of soldiers in Chechnya, 1995.

Both Chechen Wars were highly documented events, and both sides have been accused of countless of war crimes and atrocities in the conflicts. They were scenes of extensive use of indiscriminate heavy weapons by Russian forces. Subsequent operations in the conflict areas were rife with torture, rape, and forced disappearances, and all the while it’s been widely reported that the Russian authorities operated concentration camp-like sites for boys and men suspected of being involved in militancy. Scholarly work on the subject has put the numbers of dead from the two wars at around 75,000 people (the vast number of which being civilian), yet some human rights groups have reported nearly double that number. A brief history of the conflict may give some context why it spun so out of control.

First War

The first war began after several failed attempts at orchestrating a coup to remove Dudayev’s government. When it became obvious clandestine means were of no avail, Yeltsin ordered the military to move on the small republic. Massive aerial bombardment began in Autumn, and by early December, nearly 40,000 soldiers supported by tanks and light armor poured in.

What’s important to understand about the first conflict is the level of unpreparedness and sheer unwillingness of the Russian military at the time. It was largely a conscript army made up of many young men who hadn’t turned 20 years old. And, though having fought in Afghanistan just a decade before, Russia’s military minders still hadn’t implemented crucial reforms in tactics and planning which still were designed to fight a large, Cold War-era ground war in Europe against NATO.

The invasion and subsequent assault on Grozny was not just devastating to the local population (it is estimated over 23,000 civilians were killed in the initial storm of the city), but fighting in the capital proved equally gruesome to the men engaging in combat. Entire brigades of ill-equipped Russian conscripts unprepared for the horrors of urban warfare were encircled and decimated in surprise attacks. Rural operations fared no better, as entire villages were razed by artillery and airpower. Brutal “mopping up” operations occasionally broke out into drunken orgies of rape and murder.

Tens of thousands civilians and fighters perished in the first conflict. Dudayev, the Chechen leader, was killed. Hundreds of thousands were displaced. Chechen boys and men fled to the mountains to avoid abduction by the Russian security forces. Concerned Russian mothers, many of whom were unaware their sons had been sent to wage war in Chechnya, actually travelled to the battlefields to bring their boys home, only to find that they had long been dead.

Yes, it was that bad.


In April of 1996, a large Chechen counteroffensive rounded Russian forces in the Chechen capital of Grozny and took the city. In the face of mounting deaths, a severely demoralized and battered army, and a mounting PR disaster for the government, the Yeltsin administration sought a way out. The new Chechen leadership signed a weak peace accord with the Russians. Russian forces pulled out of the region in shortly thereafter and the question of Chechnya’s independence was shelved for five years. However, things didn’t get any better.

The interwar period was marked by further criminalization of the republic, the fracturing and near total collapse of local Chechen government, and an expansion of more extremist branches of Islam in Chechnya. As a result, Dudayev’s successor Aslan Maskhadov was increasingly pressured to make concessions to groups who were increasingly becoming religiously radicalized.

Second War

The Second Chechen War began in the late autumn of 1999 after multiple events rocked Russia. The first was a failed invasion of Chechnya-based Islamists into the Russian territory Dagestan. The second was a series of devastating terrorist attacks throughout Russia, which the Russian secret service and public opinion alike were quick to blame on the Chechens.

By all accounts, the Russians were better prepared for conflict this time around. However, many mistakes were repeated. In an attempt to avoid combat deaths, military leaders priortized massive artillery and aerial bombardment, in hopes that it would limit the exposure of units to close combat (albeit at the cost of infrastructure and and noncombatants). After Grozny was taken by federal forces in 2000, the UN had declared the city ‘the most destroyed place on earth.’

Again, just as during the last war, rural areas also paid a serious price. Russian soldiers, upon meeting resistance in villages and towns, called in airstrikes and artillery to root out fighters. Notably, in March of 2000, the entire village of Komsomolskoye was destroyed by a fusillade of munitions, including TOS-1 thermobaric missiles.

The war’s battle phase would end in May of 2000, and once again the Chechen resistance took to the mountains in order to continue their war against the Russian occupiers.

What kind of violence has Russia experienced since the wars?

A great deal.

The Russian security forces engaged in brutal ‘mopping up’ operations in Chechnya and the surrounding areas immediately after major combat operations ended. Security forces, which included personnel from a variety of the power ministries, would often cordon off villages and neighborhoods to search for suspected militants and weapons caches. These operations often ended with disappearances of locals, extrajudicial killings, and even rape. Further, these operations saw homes damaged and destroyed, and property stolen. Though security operations today aren’t as violent, they are still pretty heavy handed. More on that a bit.

Further, there has been a continuation of Caucasus-based terrorism against civilian populations in Russia itself. Many of the incidents have been horrifying. Notable events include the Dubrovka theatre siege in Moscow (130 people dead), a tragic incident in Beslan, North Ossetia, in which Chechen terrorists took nearly 1,200 people hostage at a school (331 people dead, mostly children), and various bombings on subways and transportation infrastructure.

Lastly, a low to mid-level insurgency against the various security agencies operating in the region has continued to this day without cease. Violence between security forces and militants occurs at a high frequency. Many of these incidents occur in and around the cities Makhachkala and Khasavyurt in Dagestan, Nalchik in Kabardino-Balkaria, and also in rural areas in villages.

What is the situation like now?

There was a serious proliferation of regional instability since 2000. Last year, 986 people fell victim to armed conflict in the North Caucasus. Of that number, which includes civilians, security personnel, and militants, 528 died. Mind you, this isn’t a conflict on some far corner of the globe, this is technically European Russia. What is also important to understand is that Chechnya is a relative far cry from the war torn images and lawlessness that people seem to still associate with the region. Security is still an issue, and it will be for years to come, but the pressing areas of focus lie on Chechnya’s periphery. Most notably, these are the republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria.

Since Chechnya was ‘pacified,’ the federal security forces have tended to move away from any sort information gathering and reconciliatory measures they may have been interested in. They have instead chosen to rely on overwhelming disproportionate force in security operations. When militants are believed to have been found, the short sieges of homes often end in a hail of automatic fire and rocket propelled grenades. Simply put: they don’t arrest, they liquidate.

Still, many militants have been eliminated and, the constant violent harassment of militant groups does put considerable pressure on them and their operational capacity. As long as Chechnya remains relatively calm, the mindset within the government will most likely remain that heavy military-styled responses to insurgencies are an effective method in bringing the region to heel.

So who would be behind the potential terror threats we’ve heard about at Sochi?

The Caucasus Emirate is self-proclaimed entity whose border includes most of the North Cacuasus and parts of southern Russia. It was formed in 2007 and is a result of a union between various elements of the Chechen government-in-exile and the Caucasian Front. Since then, it has become largest and most organized extremist organizations challenging Russian rule in the North Caucasus, and has also gained a great deal of notoriety in the lead up to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

Though it has claimed defined borders, the Caucasus Emirate can be likened to a sort of archipelago of extremism. It’s a cluster of autonomous militant groups whose command structure has been regionalized into provinces each with their own Emirs, with lieutenants below them who may be assigned to a particular city or district. The general reasoning for such a command structure is to limit the damage done to organization if a particular leader is killed.

The leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Dokka Umarov, is in the top ten list of most wanted terrorists worldwide. Recent reports of his death (there have been nearly a dozen throughout the years) have sparked considerable debate within security and academic circles, which aim to both verify reports and, to a much greater extent, attempt to explain the impact his death would actually have on the organization itself.

Though Incidents like the December bombings in Volgograd illustrate that the organization is capable of orchestrating major attacks, its operational capacity (or lack there of) does not afford it the ability to engage in such attacks on a consistent basis. The day-to-day often includes small assaults on security forces and tossing grenades into police cars in the North Caucasus itself, with minimal activity in what you would call central Russia. Its reliance on suicide bombers in recent years also speaks to its unwillingness to commit large numbers of fighters to high cost attacks.

Are we likely to see attacks at the Olympics themselves?

Sources within the Russian government have reported time and time again that there will be nearly 40,000 security personnel stationed in and around the Olympic sites. This includes local police, the Internal Troops of Russias Ministry of the Interior, and 802 Cossacks dressed in their ravishing cultural garb — all of whom will be overseen by a large security service administration. (Note: Recent numbers have been inflated to as high as 70,000 to 100,000, but this most likely includes Russian Ground Forces, which are headquartered at Stavropol and Vladikavkaz, respectively.) Additionally, most countries will also be sending along their own security attachés with their delegations.

With all of this in mind, many experts have come out and said that the likelihood of attacks at the games themselves is low. Sochi has been reinforced to such a degree that it has become one massively well defended hard target. However, most also tend to agree that an attack on a soft target outside of the Sochi “ring of steel” is far more likely. This may include an attack on a Russian city, a transportation hub, or some sort of infrastructure — in other words, structures like other terror targets of the past.

Nicholas Viau studies and writes about Eurasian security affairs. Follow him on Twitter at @nicholasviau.