With the 2014 Winter Olympics just weeks away, world leaders, including President Barack Obama, have announced that they will not be attending the Games in the Russian city of Sochi. But while reports indicate that the absences are in response to Russia’s ongoing LGBT rights abuses, this week’s terrorist attacks in Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, may be pointing at an alternative—some very real security concerns.
Russia’s southern city of Volgograd, located in the Federation’s unstable North Caucasus region, was targeted in a second suicide bombing on Monday when an explosion hit a trolleybus during the morning rush hour. The first attack, which killed 17 people at the city’s main train station, took place only 24 hours earlier.
At least 32 people have been killed in the two bombings over the last day.
Authorities have labeled the events terrorist attacks, according to Russian media, and have launched a security mission of more than 260 search groups and 142 investigative squads working to secure the city. So far, over 80 people have been detained in the “whirlwind anti-terror sweep.” No groups had claimed responsibility for the attacks as of Monday night, but reports have said that suspicion has largely fallen on Chechen separatist groups.
As violence continues to surge across the region, experts have predicted a “gulag Olympics,” surrounded by the tightest security measures in the games’ history. But some are starting to show concerns that the Sochi Olympics may prove to be a target—even if plans result in a failed attempt.
After Doku Umarov, leader of the Caucasus Emirate—an North Caucasian extremist group that has claimed responsibility for previous incidents—in July called for “maximum force” to disrupt the Sochi games, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a “new security push,” issuing a decree “in the name of security” and saying that “the suppression and neutralization of the terrorist and criminal threat… is especially important in connection with the holding of the Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014.”
Russians, Umarov said, “plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on the territory of our land on the Black Sea, and we Mujahedeen are obliged not to permit that—using any methods allowed us by the almighty Allah.”
The bones Umarov referred to are those of decades, even a century, of conflict—from the Russian-Circassian war to the Chechen Wars of the nineties, and the more recent five-day war between Russia and the Republic of Georgia.
Putin has ordered security to be tightened around the country, including in Sochi, which is already expected to be highly militarized and surveyed throughout the duration of the games.
Despite the fact that these Olympic Games will be held closer to an area of conflict than any other, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has remained positive. He called the act “a despicable attack” and said he had written to Putin to express “our confidence in the Russian authorities to deliver safe and secure games in Sochi.”
White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said on Monday that the United States would “welcome closer cooperation with Russia on security preparations for the Winter Olympics” following the attacks.
“The US government has offered our full support to the Russian government in security preparations for the Sochi Olympic Games, “ she said. “We would welcome the opportunity for closer cooperation for the safety of athletes, spectators and other participants.”
Volgograd lies approximately 400 miles away from the Olympics’ Sochi venue.