Russia's Nationalists, the Other Threat in Sochi

Western governments seem convinced that the main security threat at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games is North Caucasus terrorism. Russia has effectively been fighting terrorists in the region for almost two decades, and these insurgents have declared their intention to attack the Games.

The threat of terrorism is real, but the focus on North Caucasian insurgency has obscured the extent to which other potential perpetrators—equally as deadly, and just as likely—have been discussed. Chief amongst these are Russian nationalists.

Nationalism is on the rise in Russia, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Krasnodar Krai—the region where Sochi is located. Travelling through cities in the region, you can see this everywhere. Nationalist and xenophobic graffiti adorns walls and pavements. Incidents of racist and neo-Nazi violence are increasing in number. In 2006, the year that Sochi bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, there were seven recorded “racially motivated” attacks in the region, according to figures from the Moscow-based SOVA Center. In the first half of last year alone, there was the same number. Between 2011 and 2013, there was a ten-fold increase in the number of individuals participating in the “Russian March,” Russia’s now-traditional annual celebration of extreme nationalism, in Krasnodar.

Authorities in Krasnodar Krai have not only failed to prevent this growth of nationalism, they have also encouraged it. Alexander Tkachyov, the regional governor, has introduced discriminatory legislation and supported the use of systemic violence targeting minorities. He has also overseen the revival of the Cossack movement in the region. The aims of the Cossacks, who are aggressively racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic in outlook, is clear: to protect Russia from what they see as foreign influences, using whatever means possible. Their ideology is closely aligned with that of nationalists, and several hundred Cossacks will provide security during the Sochi Olympics, alongside the estimated 40,000 police and security forces. The reason for the Cossacks’ inclusion, Tkachyov explained in 2012, is that “what the police can’t do, a Cossack can.” 

Russia’s preparations for the Olympics have been characterized by the way that President Putin has channeled Russian nationalism, arguing that Sochi’s hosting of the Games proves Russia’s re-emergence as a great power. Putin may fete nationalism but, as the riots in Moscow in October 2013 demonstrated, he does not control nationalists. Like their insurgent counterparts, Russian nationalists may see the Games as an attempt to draw wider attention to their homophobic and racist cause.

While bomb attacks are mainly the preserve of insurgents, it is not outside the realm of possibility that nationalists will employ this tactic in Sochi. There are precedents. Nationalists were linked to two bomb attacks on the Nevsky Express train, the first in 2007, in which 25 people were wounded, and the second in 2009, in which 28 were killed. In 2010, nationalists were responsible for a bomb attack in Stavropol—a city fewer than 150 miles from Sochi—in which eight people were killed. 

Since then, nationalists have carried out a campaign of hoax bomb attacks in southern Russia.

Of the 19 terrorist attacks carried out in Sochi since the city was awarded the Games, in July 2007, 12 were performed by Russians, a number of whom were rumored to have had links to nationalist organizations. Between 2008 and 2009, Ilya Galkin, an officer in the Sochi police department, and Mikhail Denisenko, a TV cameraman, carried out nine separate attacks, in which 14 people were killed. Of the remaining seven attacks, only two were carried out by individuals from the North Caucasus.

Andrew Foxall is the director of the Russia Studies Center at the Henry Jackson Society.

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