Putin’s Olympic Problem

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Over the weekend, Russia suffered two terrorists attacks, not far from where the Sochi Olympics are set to begin later this month. David Satter, longtime Russia correspondent, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and author, most recently, of It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past talks about the situation with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KJL: Are the Olympics safe to attend?

David Satter: Anyone considering going to the Sochi games should keep a couple of things in mind. First, the Olympic sites are adjacent to the North Caucasus – a war zone. Second, Islamist terrorists have vowed to carry out attacks on the games and, in the case, of the Volgograd bombings on December 29 and 30, have already done so. Finally, in the event of a hostage situation, the Russian forces will behave as they did in the Moscow theater siege of 2002 and the Beslan school siege of 2004. They will use maximum force without worrying about the lives of the hostages. It is not possible to attend the Sochi Olympics without taking a risk. I would advise against it. 

KJL: Is this all about militant Islam?

Satter: It is, but not only. Doku Umarov, the leader of the North Caucasian Islamic insurgency, says that he wants to establish an Islamic Emirate from the Black Sea to the Caspian. He is behind some of the worst atrocities in recent years, including the bombing of the arrivals hall of the Domodedovo Airport in January that left 30 dead. Putting an end to terrorism in Russia requires defeating militant Islam. The rise of militant Islam, however, came about as a result of Russia’s invasion of the republic of Chechnya, which had declared independence. Russian atrocities in Chechnya, including the disappearance of about 3,000 persons in 2001–03 contributed to a radicalization of the opposition. In parts of Russia with a Muslim population but no war, there is militancy but nothing like the bloodletting that is taking place in the Caucasus.

KJL: What do the attacks say about Putin’s leadership?

Satter: The attacks show that Russians cannot rely on the protection of their government. In 1999, while still prime minister, Putin vowed to destroy the terrorists in their “outhouses.” In subsequent years, he has often issued bloodcurdling threats but the number of terrorist attacks has steadily increased. By 2010, the number of attacks was seven times higher than in 1999. There is also a distressing tendency for attacks to be committed by persons who were either being watched or were just released from custody. The most benign explanation is that the authorities have agents in terrorist groups and use them to collect information but lose control over them. A more sinister explanation is that some of the attacks are instigated by the authorities themselves.

KJL: What is the U.S. role?

Satter: The U.S. role is not very great. Russia’s enemies in this case are also our enemies, but the U.S. cannot be associated with many of the anti-terrorism tactics used by the Russians, including torture, abductions, and forced disappearances.  

KJL: Will the Olympics be an opportunity for the Russians to change their cruel position on international adoptions?

Satter: Foreign adoptions are unpopular in Russia, which is tragic because there is a shortage of adoptive parents in Russia itself. For the moment, there is no sign that the Russian policy is going to change.

KJL: What is a successful Olympics for Putin? Is this a setback for the Russian people?

Satter: A successful Olympics would involve confirmation of Russia’s and particularly Putin’s important place in the world. It would be attested to by the presence in Sochi of world leaders and massive television coverage and it would not be marred by violence. In this sense, the Olympics are already unsuccessful by virtue of the attacks in Volgograd, a major hub for those trying to reach Sochi, and the non-attendance of many leaders, including President Obama. If there are no further attacks – and that is a big if – Putin may still be able to present the Olympics as a partial triumph. But if another attack occurs, it will be obvious to the world that Putin has made no progress in ending the insurgency, and it will underscore the irresponsibility of the International Olympic Committee in agreeing to hold the Olympics in Sochi in the first place. 

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