Board of Regents

Physical Attacks, Cyber Attacks, and General Threats Can Cause Many Levels of Disruption, According to Potomac Institute Senior Fellow Amb. David Smith (Ret.)

As the February 6-23 Sochi Winter Olympic Games draw nearer, world attention is riveting in on the Russian Black Sea city, particularly on security concerns.

Ambassador (ret) David J. Smith, Potomac Institute Senior Fellow and Cyber Center Director is also Director of the Georgian Security Analysis Center in Tbilisi, Georgia.  From his vantage point in Tbilisi, just a few hundred miles from Sochi, Amb. Smith recently discussed some of the concerns in context.

Asked what the United States can do, Amb. Smith underscored that Washington must not imply that it is responsible for security at an event inside Russia, nor should it allow the American people to infer that it can affect things there in an appreciable way.  “The most important thing is for the government to do its best to secure official American participants—athletes, coaches, trainers, etc.”

“Only then,” he continued, “and only to the extent possible, should the US try to assist Russian authorities with the overall security situation.”  The problem, as he summarized it, is that the Russians traditionally refuse outside help, particularly from Americans.  “They’ll ask for some technology that they don’t have,” he said, “but they’re reluctant to accept help from Americans.”

Although U.S. official warnings have been issued for travelers to be vigilant, Amb. Smith pointed out that it’s harder to see signs of trouble in other cultures.  Russia has put billions of dollars and an abundant military presence, but it’s important to remember that sometimes the threats start small.  “Americans need to beware of provocations,” Amb. Smith said.  A gay rights protest may start out small and peaceful, but quickly be escalated into a melee.  “All it would take is a few planted stone-throwers inside the group and a gang of local toughs ready to respond.”

“My sense,” Amb. Smith said, “is that the Russians do not have as good a grip on the threats as they say they do or even think they do.”  In particular, Amb. Smith said that he has concerns over the “typical Russian approach of brawn over brains.  They’ve mobilized 60,000 police and military, but what training do they have?  They’ll line the streets every few meters.  They’re sure to see a rainbow flag unfurled by a gay rights activist, but can they spot real trouble?  With just two weeks to go, Russian authorities are frantically searching for 3 three so-called ‘black widows,’ one of whom is apparently already in Sochi.”  Black Widow is a colloquial reference to widows of alleged terrorists seeking revenge by suicide bombing.

“They have the Sochi area as tight as a drum, and that makes it difficult – but not impossible – for the wrong people to have access.”  That also means that surrounding cities like Krasnodar, Rostov and Stavropol may become more attractive targets.  Volgograd is only 400 miles away and, of course, Moscow is the capital and the major point of arrival in Russia.  “Remember what happened a few weeks ago in Volgograd,” Amb. Smith continued.  “The bomb at the railway station was apparently carried by a Russian convert to Islam.  That’s hard to spot without good intelligence.”

“And that is a problem in the North Caucasus.  Terrorist groups, criminal gangs and law enforcement agencies are all intertwined.  You have to know what you’re looking for.  They’re doing security sweeps, finding bodies and arresting and killing alleged perpetrators.  But in the North Caucasus, it is hard to know from where those bodies came and who was arrested or killed.  It could have more to do with rival gangs and clans than with real counter-terrorism.”

Just as physical attacks on less secure nearby cities have become attractive, cyber attacks are also attractive.  “Someone can sit in a basement in Moscow, Maykop or even Milwaukee,” Amb. Smith explained “and attack all sorts of assets in Sochi.  If the objective is to disrupt and embarrass, the possibilities are near endless.”

“Every major sporting event in recent history has received cyber threats, and groups like Anonymous Kavkaz and Adygea Hackers have been threatening Sochi.  How successful, how disruptive it might be – we cannot tell.”

A corollary concern arises from the massive electronic surveillance system that Russian authorities have erected to combat physical and cyber threats.  “Anyone going to that area should not expect one shred of privacy.  I wouldn’t bring anything on a computer, disk, or smart phone that I don’t want someone else reading.  And one must assume that every phone conversation, every E Mail is monitored,” Amb. Smith said.