Sochi’s Gathering Storm: A Geospatial Look

There is something that makes me anxious about the Sochi Olympics. No, it is not the media hype about security. The press tends to focus on the negative; and they are doing just that regarding the Super Bowl in New Jersey, with topics ranging from security to cold weather to the lack of business for New Jersey’s hotels and restaurants.

My anxiety went from concern to alarm, so being a geographer I started to look at relevant maps to see if there was a spatial or geospatial reason for these feelings. After all, I had just read a Voice of America article about the “Ring of Steel,” consisting of some “60,000 police and soldiers—26 for each athlete,” protecting Olympic venues. What could go wrong?

Freedom index in Europe
Map 1. Established democracies in green, authoritarian governments in purple, and democracies with autocratic trends in yellow.

Freedom in Russia. The map above from Freedom House vividly illustrates countries whose governments are judged to be free (green), partly free (yellow), and not free (purple). As you can see, Sochi is in Russia, a country considered to have an authoritarian government that is not free. Traditionally, security forces in authoritarian countries are concerned about regime safety rather than public safety. While it is true that regime and public safety coincide for the Olympics, the security forces may not have an instinctive feel for public service and safety, which is critical. Also, Russia is known to have systemic problems with police corruption. Lack of training in public safety and problems with corruption could turn the Ring of Steel into a Ring of Swiss Cheese.

Terrain and Trains. A quick look at the physical geography of the Sochi region is possible thanks to a recent map in Canadian Geographic (below). A few observations come to mind when looking at this map. The extreme relief will make it difficult for the Ring of Steel. The Russians built a new high-speed railway line between Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana, high in the mountains, where Olympic ski events will take place. The train takes passengers from a subtropical environment near the coast to an alpine climate, with elevations ranging from 2,000 to 7,800 feet. First, the newness of this rail project may make it susceptible to mechanical and structural issues. Second, Russian trains and train stations were terrorist targets in 2009, 2010, and 2013.

Sochi and railway to alpine mountains
Map 2. Coastal Sochi and the railway to alpine ski events

Border with Georgia. You will also notice that the Olympic sites, especially the skating events at Adler, are next to an international border with the Republic of Georgia, a country Russia invaded in 2008. But this region of Georgia, known as Abkhazia, declared independence from Georgia in 1999—thanks to Russian military assistance. Not surprisingly, Russian security forces control this part of Georgia.

Muslim Threat. Internal threats to the Olympics from Russia’s Muslim population are mentioned frequently in popular media. Russia has the largest Muslim population in Europe, estimated at some 16 million.  The largest Muslim populations, near Sochi, are historically hostile to Russian rule, and the U.S. and British governments advise against travel to these regions, where there are terrorist attacks (map below). Russia is a migration destination for many legal and illegal Muslim immigrants. Moscow holds some 600,000 Muslims, and many Muslim migrants came to Sochi to build the infrastructure for the Winter Olympic Games.

Areas of terrorist attacks near Sochi
Map 3. Regions of terrorist attacks and Muslim extremists near Sochi

Outside Threats. One threat that immediately comes to mind is weather. What if the weather is too warm? This was a problem for the 2012 Vancouver Olympics. However, threats are more likely to come from foreign nationalists or terrorists. A brief review of outside threats would include the following countries:

  • Ukraine. Political instability in Ukraine is high, with large-scale protests in the capital, Kiev, and many western Ukrainian cities. The current Ukrainian government is backed by Moscow, and draconian action by Ukraine against protesters would reflect negatively on Russia.
  • Georgia. As mentioned above, the Republic of Georgia (population 5 million) was invaded by Russia (population 143 million) in 2008. Russia’s victory humiliated Georgia, and Georgians will seek to restore their political dignity at this Olympics.
  • Syria. Russian military assistance and political protection preserves the Assad regime, continuing the bloodbath in Syria. Arab or Kurdish rebels from Syria could look for revenge at the Olympics.

 A Gathering Storm.  Russian prestige is on the line during these Olympics. My hope is that the Russian athletes and people succeed, but I am cautious about the outcome for the Russian government. There seems to be a gathering storm surrounding Sochi, and storm fronts consisting of corruption, political unrest, and terrorist threats are strong.