Staunton, March 21 – Vladimir Putin received enormous credit for preventing any terrorist incidents from interfering with the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but the method he adopted – helping jihadists to leave the Caucasus for the Middle East prior to the games and then blocking their return to the Russian Federation – is now backfiring in both places.
Last week, the International Crisis Group released a 53-page report “Jihad for Export” (crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/europe/caucasus/Russian%20translations/238-the-north-caucasus-insurgency-and-syria-an-exported-jihad-russian.pdf) that has attracted attention in Russian media. (Seerufabula.com/news/2016/03/17/sochi-terror and kommersant.ru/doc/2939336.)
Putin’s policy helped reduce terrorist incidents in the North Caucasus at the time of the Olympiad but only by intensifying Islamist radicalism in the Middle East and further radicalizing those jihadists in the North Caucasus, the ICG report suggests. This is yet another example of the way in which Putin’s pursuit of his short term goals often entails larger and longer term disasters.
In support of its argument, the ICG report quotes a source in the law enforcement organs of Daghestan who said that “of course, we opened the borders and helped [the Islamist radicals] to go there and then closed the border behind them by introducing criminal responsibility for participation in such militant activities.”
According to that source, “everyone is happy: they are dying there on their way to Allah, we have no terrorist acts here, and we are bombing them” at the present time in Syria.
The Moscow-assisted departure of jihadists from the North Caucasus in the months before the Sochi Games not only led to a decline in the number of terrorist incidents there but allowed the Russian force structures, after the world’s attention shifted away from Sochi, to take draconian steps against those remaining in the North Caucasus.
Although “Kommersant” called the ICG conclusion that “the Russian authorities to ensure the security of the Sochi Olympiad made possible the departure of extremists from the southern region of [Russia],” the Moscow paper itself quoted a Russian political scientist, Ruslan Martagov who said that is exactly what happened.
Martagov told the paper that “In Daghestan there were not a few cases when people connected with the special services unselfishly gave foreign passports to young people who wanted to go to Turkey and then to Syria,” where their arrival boosted the ranks of Islamist radicals and helped spark the refugee exodus.
Meanwhile, in the North Caucasus itself, the Russian authorities in the second half of 2014 -- that is after the Sochi Olympiad -- intensified their moves against Islamist radicals there. Even as they blocked the return of jihadists from Syria, the authorities composed lists of those they felt were already or were likely to become disloyal and arrested many of them.
But as both the ICG report notes and as “Kommersant” seconds, these actions have not led to a further decline in radicalism in the North Caucasus but instead have led, in the Moscow newspaper’s words, “to still greater activism” on the part of the militants. To the extent that is true, the Sochi Games continue in this sphere as well to cast a dark shadow on the region.