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Putin’s Ring of Steel: How the Russian Federation Constructed the Most Extensive and Controversial Security System in Olympic History

Written by Eileen Jorns.

Case of Study

This article is an excerpt from the new book Soft Target Hardening: Protecting People from Attack (Dr. Jennifer Hesterman, CRC, 2014).


In a January 2014 interview, President Vladimir Putin asserted that, "if we allow ourselves to be weak, feel weak, let our fear to be seen, by doing that we’ll assist those terrorists in achieving their goals1."
The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia was historic because, for the first time, the global discussion was more focused on the escalating potential of terrorist activity against unprotected “soft” targets and the requisite security for the Games’ venues rather than on the athletic competitions. With serious threats of terrorist attacks shrouding the Games, the Russian Olympic Committee generated the most sophisticated and extensive security regime in history.

From deploying thousands of troops, to positioning hundreds of anti-aircraft missiles and implementing a pervasive surveillance system, the security at the Sochi Olympic Games was unprecedented in depth and extent. However, despite these defensive measures and Russian assurances, the world nervously speculated as to whether the Games in Sochi would be safe.

Agitated by statements from terrorist leaders that they were explicitly targeting the Olympics, and suicide bombings occurring only months before the Games, world leaders, Russian citizenry, Olympic athletes, and international tourists feared that the advisories, precautions, and implemented security could not protect against potential terrorist attacks. Yet, despite the numerous threats and all of the concerns, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi was not attacked. President Putin accomplished his goal of protecting the Games, maintaining his reputation, and promoting Russia as a powerful and impenetrable global entity. But, what was the ultimate price for Russia’s Olympic success?

The Venue

The warmest place in Russia, and a common vacation spot for natives during the long winter, Sochi was a seemingly strange location to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. However, Sochi is a favorite locale of President Putin, who owns a personal retreat in the resort city. Throughout the history of the former Soviet Union, Sochi offered peace and quiet to many of the politically elite, including Joseph Stalin, whose former dacha (vacation home) can still be visited by tourists today. Despite the weather and the Soviet legacy in Sochi, the most surprising aspect of Sochi’s selection was its close proximity to the volatile region of the northern Caucuses. Situated in the southwestern-most corner of Russia, nestled near the Black Sea, Sochi is separated only by the Caucasus Mountains from a hotbed of Islamic militant groups – deeply embedded, actively engaged in terror attacks and passionately intent on attacking Putin’s Russia. Sochi is just 300 miles from Chechnya and only 185 miles from Kabardino-Balkaria, site of more than 69 attacks in 2013. Unquestionably, the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics was located on the edge of a war zone.

The long and historic conflict in the northern Caucuses dates back to 1817, when Russian forces invaded the Persian-controlled region and sparked a war with the local tribes. After nearly 50 years of fighting and more than 290,000 deaths, Russia captured the opposition leader and annexed the Caucasus. Relations were further antagonized during Joseph Stalin’s reign of the Soviet Union. Relying on accusations of collaboration with Nazi Germany, Joseph Stalin deported the entire Chechen population and majority of the Ingush population to Siberia and Central Asia. The historical and cultural clash between Russian and the northern Caucasus culminated in the First and Second Chechen War during the 1990s, which took over 150,000 lives. Today, almost 200 years after the first spark of violence in 1817, relations between the Kremlin and the northern Caucuses continue to be strained and the region remains volatile.

The violence and cultural tension associated with the northern Caucuses is predominantly embedded in the Republics of Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia. The North Caucasus Federal District, with a population of approximately ten million, is the smallest of Russia’s eight federal districts. However, it is the most diverse district, with approximately forty ethnic groups, and the only district in which ethnic Russians are actually in the minority. Unlike the rest of the Russian Federation, Sunni Islam is the dominant religion in the North Caucasus, with most practicing Sufism, or mystical Islam. In 2005, a group of Sunni Islam extremists in this region ignited an uprising against the Russian Federation in an effort to spurn Russian rule and establish an independent Islamic state.

The Islamist insurgency’s umbrella group, known as the Caucasus Emirate or Imarat Kavkaz, imposes its religious tenets through various acts of terrorism, including suicide bombings and army ambushes. Its mission to establish an Islamic Caliphate is led by Chechen warlord, Doku Umarov, whose first attack was the 2010 suicide bombing in the Moscow metro, killing 39 people. He also claimed responsibility for the 2011 suicide attack at Russia’s Domodedovo International Airport that killed 35. Numerous other terrorist acts against soft targets have recently been perpetrated throughout Russia under the Caucasus Emirate banner. In October, 2013, a female suicide bomber from Dagestan killed 6 people and injured over 30 others on a passenger bus in the Russian city of Volgograd. Two months later, another Dagestani female terrorist attacked the same city, killing sixteen people at a local train station.

The Volgograd terrorist attacks, which occurred a mere six weeks before the 2014 Winter Olympics, caused global concern and speculation about Russia’s ability to stem the increasing threats of similar attacks to soft targets surrounding the Olympic Games. These concerns were not unfounded. In July, 2013, Umarov summoned his Islamist followers to make the Sochi 2014 Olympics a target of extremist activity, claiming that these "Satanic Games" were being held on the "bones of our ancestors," alluding to the fact that Sochi was the last stand for Muslims who were slaughtered and buried there during the Russian-Circassian war that ended in 18642. Some historians agreed, stating that Russia’s hosting the Olympic Games at Sochi was akin to Germany hosting games at Auschwitz3. So Putin’s choice of Sochi was not only based on personal preference, but incited the Chechens and brought forth memories of genocide that wiped out a generation of Russian Muslims. Media outlets around the world discussed the blatant threats of terror and ruminated over whether Russian security at the Winter Olympics would be sufficient to protect the city, the citizens, the coaches and athletes, and the tourists. The issue of security soon dominated worldwide media discussions regarding the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The Plan

In response to the blatant terrorist threats and the increasingly negative media coverage of Russia’s security, the Sochi Olympic Committee and President Putin implemented a public relations scheme to generate a positive perception of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. The chief Sochi organizer, Dmitry Chernyshenko, confidently proclaimed that Sochi was the "most secure venue on the planet."; President Putin adamantly affirmed that the Sochi Games would showcase the greatness of the Russian Federation and guaranteed that, "Our job, needless to say, the job of the Olympics host, is to ensure security of the participants in the Olympics and visitors to this festival of sports and we will do whatever it takes."4
To the Russian President and the Russian Federation, the Games were indicative of much more than just the ability to host a sporting event. More than thirty years after Moscow hosted the controversial 1980 Olympic Games, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi were intended as an exposition of Russia’s greatness. President Putin articulated the significance of the Sochi games stating that, "following the collapse of the USSR, following hard and, let’s put it bluntly, blood-soaked developments in the Caucasus, the overall state society was depressing and pessimistic. We need to cheer up, we need to understand and feel that we are capable of pulling off major, large-scale projects and do so on schedule and with good quality."5 As a result of the significance that he placed on the Olympic Games, the sporting event soon earned the moniker of "Putin’s Games." Achieving Putin’s goal and protecting his reputation came at a price tag of $50 billion, more than what was spent on all previous winter games combined. The exorbitant cost overrun of the Sochi Games is widely attributed to Russia’s continued political corruption and construction-industry fraud, and one construction worker openly complained about the $50 million bribe paid to a Kremlin official to secure work at Sochi.

Kremlin officials described the impenetrable fortress of security around the Games as Putin’s "Ring of Steel." The architect of the "ring of steel" was the appointed Chairman of Security for the Sochi Games, Oleg Syromolotov. Syromolotov serves as the Deputy Director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) with particular expertise in counterintelligence. Central to the security laydown was the most extensive, sophisticated, and controversial surveillance systems in operation6. The 2014 Olympics became a monumental experiment for comprehensive and invasive surveillance, making Sochi the most heavily-policed environment in history7. At the core of the operation was a sophisticated technical platform, the System of Operative-Investigative Measures (SORM), which, by all accounts, it makes NSA’s controversial PRISM system look elementary. First developed in the 1980s by the Soviet KGB, SORM is a nationwide electronic interception and monitoring program that authorizes numerous Russian agencies to legally intercept all electronic transmissions. The latest version, SORM-3, has been described as, "a giant vacuum cleaner which scoops all electronic communication from all users all the time."8 Designed to search meta-data and content, SORM-3 intercepts, collects, examines, and stores all information and communications (e.g., emails, social networks, phone calls) from electronic devices, storing them for future use. The breadth of FSB’s authority and SORM-3’s technical ability to gather and analyze information by reading and listening to electronic communications far surpasses the capabilities of the National Security Agency’s PRISM system, which Edward Snowden exposed in 2013. Sochi Olympic officials worked diligently to ensure that all Internet Service Providers (ISP) installed the SORM-3 devices on their networks to provide the FSB unrestricted surveillance capability of tourists, coaches, athletes, and journalists. The Olympic Committee justified this unbridled surveillance as necessary to protect against terrorism. Furthermore, ISPs that did not have the system installed were fined by the FSB.

In furtherance of the government’s anti-terrorism security scheme, Russia’s leading telecom operator, Rostelecom, promised to provide the fastest Wi-Fi in Olympic history by launching an extensive 4G LTE network throughout Sochi, which was offered for free to all visitors to the Games. However, with this free, rapid Wi-Fi access, all Sochi internet users were subject to Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) which allowed ISP providers and other intermediaries to collect and analyze the Internet communications of millions of users simultaneously.” Rostelecom required the installation of Deep Packet to facilitate the FSB’s ability to monitor and filter all communication traffic.

The Olympic Committee’s conventional security was also extensive. More than 40,000 police were on duty throughout the Games guarding the Olympic city. Two sonar systems were purchased to protect against sea-launched terror attacks and to repel a possible air attack, there were anti-ballistic missile batteries around the city. Finally, with more than 4,000 surveillance cameras and closed-circuit television (CCTV) technology installed, Sochi became one of the most watched cities in the world. With cameras watching at every corner and missile defense units visible to the public, many argued that the spirit of the Sochi Games was shrouded in a blanket of extensive and intimidating security measures9.

At first, the Sochi security officials were reserved and uncooperative, not only about sharing details regarding the scope and magnitude of the implemented security, but also about sharing the duty of security enforcement. Over time, the relationship between the FBI and the Russian FSB improved, and a month before the Games, FBI Director Comey, announced he would send about a dozen U.S. Federal agents to the Sochi Games, and even more agents to Moscow. This announcement came amidst the growing concern of terrorist attacks on "soft" targets and questions about the security of the U.S. team and others. Cognizant of the increasing terrorism threats against soft targets, a top U.S. counterterrorism official warned a Senate Panel prior to the Games that terrorists may strike targets on the outskirts of Sochi10. Much to the world’s relief, the two weeks of Olympic competition were carried out successfully and without any reported breach of security.

The monetary cost to protect the games was high, but the real cost for the unparalleled security at Sochi was felt at the personal level. In and around the Sochi Olympic venues, athletes and coaches, journalists, and tourists were subjected to intrusive electronic surveillance and burdensome physical security measures. In addition to posting photos of the poor sanitary and safety conditions a Sochi via the Twitter account @SochiProblems, tourists also complained (and offered proof) that their hotel rooms and bathrooms were bugged. In angry response to questions posed by reporters regarding poor facility conditions such as the lack of hot water, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak may have slipped regarding surveillance, stating: "We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the shower, direct the nozzle at the wall and then leave the room for the whole day."11 The price of admission to participate in, to spectate, or to report on an Olympic event was the complete surrender of one’s privacy. Russia believes that the cost for creating an adequate defense for "soft" targets against terrorist attacks is the complete relinquishment of personal space and private information. Perhaps for those who attended the Olympic Games in Sochi, that price was not too high.

Ms. Jorns lived in Russia, working at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in the months leading up to the 2014 Olympic Games. This article is an excerpt from the new book: Soft Target Hardening: Protecting People from Attack (Dr. Jennifer Hesterman, CRC, 2014)

Foot Notes

  • 1Kirit Radia, "Putin: ‘Can’t Feel Weak’ in the Face of Terror Threats to Sochi Olympics," ABC News and World Report.
  • 2 "Islamist Umarov Vows 'Maximum Force' to Stop Sochi Games," Moscow Times, July 3, 2013.
  • 3 Stephen Wilson, "Sochi Chief: City Is World's 'Most Secure Venue'," AP.
  • 4 Radia, "Putin: ‘Can’t Feel Weak’ in the Face of Terror Threats to Sochi Olympics."
  • 5 Ibid.
  • 6 Owen Matthews, "Russia Tests "Total Surveillance"e; at the Sochi Olympics," Newsweek February 12, 2014.
  • 7 Ibid.
  • 8 Ibid.
  • 9 J. Bender, "Security Measures That Will Put a "Ring of Steel" around the Sochi Olympics", January 31, 2014.
  • 10 Aamer Madhani, "U.S. Worried About Attacks on Soft Targets near Sochi," USA Today, January 29, 2014.
  • 11 Vasudevan Sridharan, "Sochi Winter Olympics 2014: Hotel Rooms and Bathrooms 'Bugged'", International Business Times, February 8, 2014.