Can Vladimir Putin, the indomitable Russian president – the world’s most powerful man, according to Forbes Magazine – actually win the Winter Olympics?
The battle lines over the Sochi Olympic Games, which begin in little more than a month, have clearly been drawn.
The latest wave of suicide attacks unleashed in Volgograd, a city 400 miles north-east of Sochi, on Dec. 29 and 30 killed at least 34 and wounded scores. The attacks followed an earlier blast in Volgograd in October, when a female suicide bomber killed six people and injured 37 on a Moscow-bound bus.
The attacks are a direct challenge to Putin’s authority, according to a number of Russian and Western security experts interviewed by NBC News.
“The message is very simple” from the perpetrators, said Alexey Malashenko, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society and Security Program. It is: “We are ready to do everything [to show] we are against you and Russia and the games and the West.”
Putin’s reply to those responsible for the violence has been equally blunt. He’s declared a war of annihilation on the Islamist militant network reportedly led by Chechen warlord Doku Umarov and presumed to have carried out the attacks.
“We will fight in a confident, tough, relentless manner until they are completely eliminated,” Putin said during a New Year’s Day address to residents of the far-eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk.
With some U.S. and European Olympic athletes and ticket-holders already worried about the safety of the Feb. 7-23 Games, Putin ordered a beefing up of security across the country, especially in transportation hubs, like train stations and airports -- the bombers’ targets of choice.
Putin must act quickly and decisively, according to several security experts.
“If there are three, four, five or six more attacks, especially if they’re in close proximity to Sochi, then there are going to be a lot of second thoughts about, can we actually hold these games safely and securely,” warned Andrew Kuchins, security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, DC.
So far, Russian and Olympic officials have remained unflinching as they point to the blanket security at the Winter Olympic venues – arguably the largest surveillance operation in sports history. It includes a 1,500-square-mile “security zone,” made up of concentric “rings of steel,” more than 40,000 police and special forces trained to ferret out insurgents hiding in thick forests, drones watching around the clock, high-speed patrol boats off-shore and even ultra-sensitive sonar devices to pick up any submarines snooping underwater.
“The measures will include boots on the ground, electronic surveillance, video surveillance, electronic eavesdropping – basically, you won’t be able to move in Sochi without somebody knowing you’re moving or knowing where you’re going,” explained security expert Charles Hecker, research director for Control Risks, a commercial intelligence advisory group.
But militants have now shown they can strike, seemingly, at will -- even far from their home bases in the restive North Caucasus region, a haven for groups seeking an Islamic state within southern Russia.
Ominously, they've also proven they can recruit lone suicide bombers, male and female – the nightmare scenario for Russian security services because they’re so hard to track and to stop.
“How do you protect everyone against that?” asked British historian and Russia expert Martin McCauley. “And the answer is – you can’t. You try to do your best, but it’s absolutely impossible to engage in total security. You can attempt 99 percent or 98 percent but you can’t achieve total security,” he said.
Putin can talk tough about wiping out the scourge of Islamist terrorism but in reality, many security experts believe he can do little more to fulfill his dream of the perfect Olympic Games in Sochi.
The former chief of the KGB faces a security conundrum even he can’t crack: On the one hand, as he moves forces to other vulnerable areas, like Volgograd in Central Russia, he depletes his “ring of steel” in and around Sochi.
“Hitting Volgograd twice in two days raised the idea of a diversion attack because you force the local security services and the services in Moscow to pay more attention to this particular region,” explained Andrei Soldatov, editor of a Russian security watchdog website.
While, on the other hand, and despite all the security in Sochi, it will take just one determined – and clever – suicide bomber to not only ruin the $52 billion Winter Games, but strike a body blow to Putin’s leadership as well.
Kuchins, the security analyst in Washington, summed up succinctly why the Olympic stakes are so high for the man who built his reputation defeating Muslim separatists on the battlefield.
“Putin brought stability, predictability, safety and security. These games get attacked in a significant way, and all that goes out the window,” he said.