Sochi Watch: Everything You Need to Know about Russia's Massive Olympic Security Operation

Just five weeks before the 2014 Winter Olympics kick off in Sochi, two bombings in the Russian city of Volgograd have highlighted security concerns in the volatile region, and drawn attention to the massive security apparatus emerging around the Olympic games. Part of the problem is location: Sochi lies near the North Caucasus, an area engaged in civil conflict for 20 years, and a reputed terrorist hotbed. In June, Doku Umarov, the leader of a Chechen terrorist group, released a video charging his followers to disrupt the Olympic games using "maximum force." The sprawling layout of the Olympic games could pose a security challenge, too. The venues are divided into two clusters: mountain and coastal, which are separated by 30 miles, and connected by nine transit hubs -- each a potential target.

In spite of these challenges, Russia's government is maintaining that the event will carry on without a hitch. To that end, participants and spectators will be carefully screened, monitored, and surveilled by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), the country's primary counterterrorism and security agency -- formerly known as the KGB. The first measure of security for foreign visitors are spectator passes -- a special form of identification that will give FSB a chance to perform background checks on all ticketholders. (You'll also need one to begin the complicated process of applying for a tourist visa.) From there, Sochi's security apparatus only intensifies. Here's a rundown:

You will be watched:

  • All Internet traffic by Sochi residents, visitors, and journalists will be monitored by SORM, a surveillance system used by the FSB to track telephone and Internet communications.
  • Authorities will also rely on "drones, reconnaissance robots, sonar systems and high-speed patrol boats" to monitor activity in Sochi 24 hours-a-day.

You will be policed:

  • 100,000 security personnel overseen by the FSB will be assigned to Sochi
  • 40,000 (allegedly tri-lingual) police officers (twice the number used in the 2012 Olympics) will work the Games
  • 30,000 armed forces troops will be deployed throughout the Sochi area
  • 10,000 additional troops will secure the Olympic Mountain cluster, supervised by a Russian military team called "Operations Group Sochi"
  • The 58th Army will secure the Russia-Georgia border, to the south

You will show ID (often):

Restricted security zones, as well as special "controlled zones" will cover a wide swath of the Sochi area. Spectators moving through the following areas will need to present both a ticket and a spectator pass, or Olympic accreditation. They may also have to pass through metal detectors and x-ray machines. Restricted areas include:

  • The Olympic Park, Olympic Villages, Olympic Mountain Cluster, and Olympic Coastal Cluster
  • Sochi's national park, airport, seaport, and railroad terminal
  • The internal border of Karachay-Cherkessia, 200 miles east of Sochi, and the external border between Russia's Krasnodar Krai area and the Georgian territory of Abkhazia

Visitors moving through the "controlled zones" -- areas around the Olympic Park as well as all checkpoints along the Sochi and Adler coast -- will also have to submit to police inspections.

Sochi's massive security infrastructure is a mighty show of force by President Vladimir Putin, who regards the Winter Games as his pet project (it's already the most expensive Olympics in history). The obvious question, now, is: What happens to the rest of Russia when all its cops are stuck in one place?



Why Syria Is the Most Dangerous Place To Be a Journalist

For the second year running, more journalists have been killed in Syria than anywhere else in the world, according to a report released Monday by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). In 2013, 29 were killed there in the course of reporting; in 2012, the grim toll reached 31.

Reporting from within a war zone is always a risk, but Syria stands out for a couple of reasons. First, from a baseline of relative safety, the security situation for journalists deteriorated rapidly once the conflict began. (In the two decades before the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, CPJ had not documented a single journalist death in the country; the following year, it ranked No. 1 in journalist deaths). Second, both sides of the conflict have specifically singled journalists out for violence.

Assad's regime -- already notorious for suppressing media freedom -- was the first to target journalists reporting on the civil war. In the early days of the uprising, Syrian authorities began arresting local reporters covering the anti-government protests. Then, in 2012, when Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in a rocket attack carried out by the Syrian army, the Telegraph reported that the Syrian Army may have specifically targeted the journalists after tracking their satellite phone signals to a particular building. Soon after, CPJ confirmed that satellite phone tracking was being widely used by military and security forces, and that it presents a real risk to journalists covering Syria and other conflict zones.

The peculiar nature of the violence against journalists in Syria prompted Robert Young Pelton, writing for Foreign Policy, to draw parallels between the Syrian conflict and the second Chechen war, in which "journalists were specifically targeted to prevent sympathetic or embarrassing reports from escaping the killing zone." Pelton speculated that Assad "studied the success of the last Chechen war before launching his own assault on the restive city of Homs.... The crackdown in Homs carries a grim echo of Grozny, both in its use of signals intelligence to track down and silence the regime's enemies and in its bloody determination to obliterate any opposition, including Western journalists." Iraqi cameraman Yasser Faysal al-Joumaili was the first foreign journalist executed by ISIS fighters.

Journalist abductions are also increasingly a problem in Syria. According to CPJ, 60 journalists have been kidnapped since the start of war -- most likely taken by opposition groups -- with 30 still missing. In most cases, the kidnappers don't ask for ransom, but are looking to mete out their version of "justice."

Elsewhere in the world, the CPJ report notes, the number of journalist deaths has decreased slightly; In 2013, 70 journalists died globally, down from 74 in 2012. Of those 70 deaths, two-thirds occurred in the Middle East, most of them in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. "The Middle East has become a killing field for journalists," CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney said in a statement. "The civil war in Syria and a renewal of sectarian attacks in Iraq have taken an agonizing toll."

CPJ only counts deaths of journalists who are "killed in direct reprisal for his or her work; in combat-related crossfire; or while carrying out a dangerous assignment." The organization is still investigating the deaths of 25 other journalists who died in 2013.