By Stephanie Linares, Transatlantic Security Analyst
While the 2014 Winter Olympics have drawn to a close, there remains the question of what lies beyond Sochi for the North Caucasus. Although the Games concluded successfully and terrorist attacks were averted, the long-term security concerns and implications stemming from terrorism in the region have not dissipated with the extinguishing of the Olympic torch. Known as the “summer capital” of Russia, Sochi’s beaches and parks are favored vacationing spots for the country’s political elite. However, Sochi’s close proximity to troubled areas in the North Caucasus, including Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria – a region that has been engulfed in civil conflict for twenty years and is a known hotbed ofterrorist activity – cast a long and noticeable shadow throughout the competition.
A successful and secure end to the Games is a victory not only to Russia but to President Vladimir Putin as well, as he argued that the success of the Olympics on Russian soil would be an indicator of Russia successfully restoring territorial integrity and establishing control in the Caucasus. But addressing this ongoing challenge will be a daunting task as social and economic problems – including chronic unemployment, low salaries, and the loss of heavy industry jobs – are all force multipliers for extremism in the region. Further complicating this situation is the hostile Russia-Georgia bilateral relationship. Since 2007, Georgia threatened an Olympic boycott against Russia and sought to establish alliances with ethnonationalist movements in the North Caucasus, a move that troubled many of its allies. In 2011, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, stated that Georgia’s attempts to engage with such groups were a contributing factor to growing tensions in the region. Ongoing instability in the region, highlighted the fall of the Yanukovych government in Ukraine, threatens to tip the precarious balance even further.
However, Russian security cooperation with the West during the Winter Olympics could be a springboard to address these challenges. In May, Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to collaborate on Olympic security, and in November the British and Russian governments began sharing intelligence for counterterrorism purposes, marking the first time Moscow and London shared intelligence in over six years. In November, the director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, praised the “improved cooperation” between U.S. and Russian intelligence agencies. Last month, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, and his Russian counterpart Gen. Valery Gerasimov discussed sharing technical information, including U.S. equipment capable of disrupting cell phone or radio signals that militants use to detonate IEDs, if the technology was found to be compatible with Russian systems. In addition, the U.S. deployed two ships to the Black Sea and unspecified air assets, while FBI agents were deployed to the region. Putin thanked foreign partners for their security assistance and allowed foreign intelligence agencies to be represented at the Sochi Olympics’ security headquarters.
This level of collaboration between Russian and Western intelligence agencies should be built upon to permit further joint intelligence sharing and counterterrorism operations in the region. It will also be critical to address the social and economic turmoil that provide an enabling environment for extremist recruitment. While attaining Russian cooperation may be difficult, Western nations should encourage democratic reform and foreign investment to lift the region’s economy and undermine terrorist recruitment from the ground-up. If the West and Russia take this opportunity build on their counterterrorism cooperation at Sochi and cooperate on economy-building measures in the North Caucasus, they could go a long way toward stabilizing the region.