Professor to Olympic visitors: Be cautious, but not afraid

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February 5, 2014

By Mike Killeen

Nick Hayes, professor of history at CSB and SJU and an expert on Russia

The 2014 Winter Olympics begin Thursday, Feb. 6, in Sochi, Russia, amid government travel warnings, the recent twin bombings in Volgograd and email threats.

Nick Hayes' advice to those going to the Black Sea resort town? Be cautious, but not afraid.

"Terrorism today takes aim at high profile and non-military targets - our Boston Marathon bombing is a case in point," said Hayes, an expert on Russia who is a professor of history at CSB and SJU and University Chair in Critical Thinking at SJU. "We have to assume that such violence could occur virtually everywhere. 

"Nevertheless, I would go to Sochi without hesitation knowing that a terrorist attack there is unlikely. Above all else, a decision not to go only gives the terrorists the satisfaction that the recent attacks in Volgograd achieved their goal."

Sochi is in southeastern Russia, and borders a region with a history of unrest, according to CNN. To the east, a movement for an independent Chechnya has spawned an insurgency that has spilled into neighboring republics in the North Caucasus region. To the south are disputed regions of Abkazia and South Ossetia, which Georgia and Russia fought over in 2008.

Chechen warlord Doku Umarov, leader of the Islamist group Caucasus Emirate, last summer called on his followers to do what they could to disrupt the games. He said they will be held on the graves of Muslim occupants, who he says were driven out by Russian imperial forces in the 19th century.

Over 50,000 Russian special forces soldiers are on location for security in Sochi, Hayes said. In addition, FBI agents are in Sochi working with their Russian counterparts on counterterrorism efforts.

"In general, Sochi will be as secure as humanly possible in this day and age," Hayes said. "The same will be true of Moscow, which will be the main international transit point. If terrorism strikes, it will strike as it recently did somewhere in southern Russia and the northern Caucasus.

"Such attacks will have the desired effect of heightening anxieties in Sochi. The Olympic facilities, city of Sochi and its environs face a very low probability of attack."

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, agreed with Hayes, telling CNN that the security in Sochi "Is the most impressive and well-fortified that we've ever seen in Olympic history." However, he said it was likely that insurgents would carry out more bombings on softer targets outside Sochi.

"Even Mitt Romney, not a friend of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin's, has said that the Russians have undertaken all possible precautions and have a grip on security issues," Hayes said of the former 2012 Republican nominee for president who was president and CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

However, the "casualty" of the armed presence in Sochi will be the "the mood of a city that is under a near lockdown," Hayes said.

"The omnipresence of Russian special forces virtually everywhere will be a calming effect, (but) also damper down what would have otherwise been a festive mood," Hayes said.