Western media outlets have spent a lot of time bashing Russia for the Winter Olympics, from reporting on the unprecedented costs of staging the Games to rehashing the many accounts of dysfunctional living conditions. But there’s one area where Vladimir Putin and his cronies have actually been on point: security.
Of the reported $51 billion spent on the Olympics, $2 billion has supposedly gone toward security. Even without knowing the numbers, the sheer breadth of the security apparatus proved that when Putin said he was personally guaranteeing the security of the Games, he wasn’t kidding around. The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) — the modern-day successor to the KGB — is managing close to 100,000 police officers, spies, investigators, and soldiers in and around Sochi. This number includes 40,000 officers in Sochi alone. That’s a greater number of officers than there are in the entire New York Police Department, and they’re patrolling a city the size of Bakersfield, California.
Hell, the US is trying to fight a war in Afghanistan with fewer people.
Given the level of police that will be in Sochi, officials have worked to tone down the visibility of many security personnel by ordering them to go on patrol in purple Olympic outfits. This may mark the first-ever attempt to make people less inconspicuous by dressing them in purple ski jackets.
Among the folks deployed to the area are the FSB’s Alpha Group — a very elite, highly-trained Special Forces/SWAT team. Alpha Group is, in short, hardcore. The group's most famous exploit occurred in Beirut in 1985, during Lebanon’s long-running civil war. Islamic militants seemingly began kidnapping every available foreigner they could find. Eventually, some clever chap got the bright idea to kidnap four Soviet diplomats.
Before the Soviet counterterrorism team could arrive, the kidnappers shot one diplomat in the head and left his body in a dumpster. Alpha Group responded with a gentle appeal to reason, and set out to convince the terrorists that everyone would be much happier if the remaining diplomats were returned unharmed.
According to one account, this is how they made their argument: first, operatives kidnapped as many of the terrorists’ family members, relatives, extended relatives, and distant relatives as they could find. They then singled out the brother of a militant leader, cut off his balls, stuffed them in his mouth, and sent his body to the militants with a note assuring them that Alpha Group had many ways of making the short remainder of the relatives’ lives very, very uncomfortable. The terrorists, now terrorized themselves, promptly dropped off the three other diplomats at the embassy. Being indirectly responsible for your brother’s brutal castration has to make for some extremely awkward holiday gatherings.
Today, members of Alpha Group remain staunchly determined to stop terrorists, but they're frustrated with Putin because they generally think he's a liberal cream puff. Seriously. Instead, they favor the return of someone with a bit more backbone . . . like Stalin.
Russia has also installed hundreds of Cossacks on the streets of Sochi. The Cossacks are a militaristic ethnic group descended from peasants who decided that life as part of a 16th Century horse-mounted mercenary gang was the way to go. The Russian Tsars relied on the Cossacks to crack heads, particularly in places like the Caucasus, but they were then swept under the rug in the Soviet era. More recently, however, they have become a sort of mascot for Russian nationalism and traditionalism—they did a delightful dance at the Opening Ceremonies—and even have their own military units.
Still, the Cossacks are probably not quite as enthusiastic about Stalin as the Alpha Group folks. Following the Second World War, 50,000 Cossacks (including women and children) returned to the Soviet Union. Upon their return, Stalin ordered them all killed, largely because they had fought against the Communists in the Russian Civil War.
Under Putin, Cossacks have even started accompanying cops on patrol, as a kind of super-nationalist Russian version of the Guardian Angels. Although they're unarmed aside from a "traditional" whip, the cops love them for two reasons: they've been known to get idiot kids to straighten up with a stern lecture, and they aren’t constrained by the same rules as the cops. They can therefore beat the crap out of people instead of arresting them, bringing them to the station, and filling out paperwork. Deploying Cossacks for security in Sochi is an interesting choice. Cossacks, on behalf of the Tsars, carried out the ethnic cleansing of the Circassians in and around Sochi 150 years ago. So putting them in the Sochi security force is a pretty ballsy move for Putin.
As you might expect, the KGB’s successor organization is no slouch on the eavesdropping front. The Russian equivalent of NSA's electronic surveillance effort in Sochi is more pervasive, more intrusive, and more extensive than anything the NSA has on offer. So much so, in fact, that the US Department of State has essentially advised travelers to the area, as a matter of course, to assume everything they have will be read, recorded, probed, poked, and otherwise compromised. They go further, suggesting that disposable “burner” electronics be used. And/or that everything be swept absolutely clean before and after visiting. That said, if the Russian ability to process data matches their ability to grab it, terrorists will definitely find it difficult to carry out a major attack.
And rounding out the litany of security precautions are a huge assortment of drones, a couple extra submarines, a battery of S-400 surface-to-air missiles (to shoot any 9/11 style airline kamikaze attacks), an additional 30,000 soldiers, and at least 5,000 cameras. They'll no doubt prove helpful in spotting any potential terrorist attacks that originate in hotel showers, especially if FSB finds the terrorists sufficiently attractive.
But is this enough security? Is it too much? Certainly, there is a certain risk in holding the Olympics in Sochi. And the Russian intelligence service, in focusing on preventing major attacks, may be losing focus on preventing smaller attacks. Certainly, the Islamist groups — per their own declarations — are doing their level best to pull off some sort of terrorist attack. But there’s certainly something to be said for absolutely inundating Sochi with security measures of all sorts. As Stalin once said, “Quantity has a quality all its own."