When the NHLPA demanded assurances from the International Olympic Committee that the Sochi Olympics next February will take place in a safe environment, its negotiators knew whereof they spoke: the games were in serious danger. They still are.
Doku Umarov, leader of insurgents operating in the nearby Caucasus mountains, has ordered his faithful to prepare for attacks against the event.
Umarov and his group have been fighting for years to split the northern Caucasus region from Russia, so far without much success.
“The Russians want to have it right over our ancestors’ remains, over the bones of many, many Muslims buried in our territory by the Black Sea,” Russian journalists quoted Umarov as saying earlier this year. “We’ve got to stop them no matter what methods we use.”
Umarov calls himself Emir, using a title of high office adopted throughout the Muslim world. In its original, it means “commander,” “general,” or “prince.” Emirs are usually considered high-ranking Sheikhs, but in monarchic states, the term is also used for Princes.
Umarov has claimed his group’s responsibility for several recent terrorist attacks. Some of them took place deep within Russia proper. They included the suicide attack at the Domodedovo airport near Moscow more than a year ago. That attack claimed at least 40 victims.
From the historical point of view, Caucasus tribes used to occupy precisely those areas that include Olympic sites. They were pushed away by Tsarist Russian armies. According to historians, at least eight million people died during the battles for the Caucasus mountains only during the 19th century. That would constitute about a half of the entire indigenous population of the region, plus more than 100,000 Tsarist Russian soldiers.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has ordered last February that his country’s security and military forces in the area go on the highest level of alert.
According tu several sources, one of the assurances that went a long way to persuade the NHLPA to eventually agree to its members’ Olympic participation, was an order to place units of “Spetsnaz” in the area. “Spetznaz” is an abbreviation for “spetsialjnoie naznachenie” (special tasks). These are Russian army’s elite units that somewhat resemble the U.S. Green Berets and Navy Seals, and the British SAS, except that the Russian take the cake so far as ruthlessness is concerned.
About a year before the opening of the Sochi Olympics, an explosion at the traffic police control stop at North-Caucasus autonomous republic of Dagestan killed four police officers. Russian soldiers would later track down and shoot to death four persons suspected of the attack. No public reports are available to confirm whether the four suspects have really been the perpetrators of the Dagestan attack.
Russia has been battling the northern Caucasus islamist insurgents for the last 10 years, since the time it managed to wrestle the control of Chechnya, whose separatists it had fought in two wars for the last two decades. Sochi is situated at the western-most area of the Caucasus region. Violent incidents in the area have been reported almost daily during the last few years.
In May 2012, Russian secret service, the FSB (successor to the KGB) reported it thwarted several Caucasus terrorists’ plans to attack the Olympics at Sochi. FSB said then that it found and seized 10 weapons storage facilities in nearby Abkhasia. They found hand-held ground-to-air missiles, grenade launchers, flame throwers, guns, hand grenades and explosives. The agency said the weaponry was supposed to be transferred to secret caches in and around Sochi. FSB said at the time that Umarov was the mastermind of this complex supply network. It also said he was in close co-operation with the secret services of the nearby republic of Georgia, an accusation the government of Georgia has steadfastly rejected.
It doesn’t help matters, either, that Georgia itself has been involved in conflicts with Russia over the nearby region of Ossetia.
And, of course, it doesn’t help matters, either, that nobody knows whether these were all weaponry stores the Caucasus terrorist groups have prepared, and whether anybody knows anything about weapons already smuggled into the Sochi region.
The NHLPA would not meet a request for comment on the matter. This would be understandable. We’re talking about delicate security matters, with lives of innocent civilians at risk.
One question remains open: is the NHL’s participation at Sochi worth the risk? Considering that talks have been going on about other international events, with the NHL and NHLPA getting the biggest chunk of the pie, unlike in the Olympic arrangement, it’s the same song and dance all over again: this is NOT about sports. This is about money.