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Truth and Consequences in Sochi

The news this afternoon that the Justice Department will seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving accused Boston Marathon bomber, comes at a time of increased attention to the terror threat from the Russian Caucasus, the breakaway region from which the Tsarnaevs fled to America. And for the Russian government it’s an ill-timed reminder of the consequences of the breakdown of trust in American-Russian security cooperation.

That’s because the Winter Olympics are set to begin in the Russian city of Sochi next week, and security concerns have only grown since dual suicide bombings in Volgograd in December. The U.S. Olympic Committee and State Department have warned American athletes not to wear their identifying gear outside the Olympic compound, and the threat of violence has put something of a cloud over the athletes’ families traveling to Sochi for the games. As the Washington Post reported earlier this week:

The United States will send the largest delegation of athletes from any single country in the history of the Winter Olympics to Sochi, a team 230 strong that includes 13 gold medal winners .

And to one degree or another, the 105 women and 125 men will carry with them concern for their personal safety and that of loved ones who will make the round-the-globe trek to cheer them on.

“Obviously I keep up with the news. I’m very aware of the security threats,” said two-time U.S. figure skating champion Ashley Wagner, 22, of Alexandria, whose parents also will travel to Sochi for her Olympic debut. “At the same time, I have to tell myself that the USOC and the Russian Olympic Committee are doing everything they can. We want this Olympics to go smoothly; I know they absolutely want this Olympics to go smoothly.

“Really, what can you do other than believe in the people put in charge to take care of you?”

But reassuring the athletes and their families is not so simple. As Wagner suggests, trust has much to do with it. That is the upshot of today’s ABC News dispatch from Sochi. The article may assuage some of the concerns of the athletes and spectators, but it can’t possibly make the Russian government–or the American government, for that matter–very happy.

The article details the ways in which Russia has dotted the landscape with invisible security–or almost invisible, that is. ABC News’s correspondent began spotting some of the camouflaged army tents along the highway in and out of Sochi. “Once you spot one,” the correspondent noted triumphantly, “the others are easier to find.” The Russians quite justifiably told ABC to knock it off:

Missile batteries poke out from behind camouflage nets in the hills above the Olympic Park. Soldiers stand guard inside tents masked with fake leaves and branches in the mountains. Navy speedboats patrol the coast. Plainclothes police officers mingle among the crowd. Closed circuit security cameras are everywhere. An electronic surveillance program monitors all cell phone and internet activity.

Russian security officials have promised a “ring of steel” to safeguard the Sochi Winter Olympics. Putin has ordered tens of thousands of extra troops and police to help secure the Olympics. Judging by the number of times ABC News was asked to stop filming or asked to show identification, it is clear that Russian authorities are taking security very seriously.

As the story goes on to note, Russia is trying to strike a balance familiar to any country struggling with increased threats of domestic terrorism. They want the attendees to know the security is there without seeing them. People expect checkpoints around the main arteries in and out of the city, but they don’t want to constantly be reminded they’re in danger or feel like they’re competing in a police state.

But Russian security policy toward the Caucasus hasn’t exactly earned blind faith. Whereas the complaint often heard in the West is about “threat inflation” to justify intensive security measures (such as the controversial NSA programs), in Russia the opposite is the case. Ever since Vladimir Putin prosecuted the Second Chechen War, he has tried to build his public image on the idea that he pacified the troubled region. That means he understates the threat, and looks unprepared or disingenuous when trouble strikes.

It’s also why American and Russian military officials have been in talks about sharing American security technology for the games. U.S. officials don’t need any more reminders that authoritarian governments that rely extensively on propaganda and punishing dissent can’t be simply taken at their word.


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