Russia: The World Cup of Security

Date first published: 19/06/2018

Key sectors: sports; travel; construction

Key risks: political violence; terrorism; civil unrest

Four years on from the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia is once again host to an international sporting event, albeit one with a very different threat profile. While the Olympics were centred on the city of Sochi and mountain towns of Adler and Krasnaya Polyana, tucked in Russia’s southwestern corner and surrounded by multiple rings of security stretching deep into the volatile North Caucasus, the football championships are being held from the Kaliningrad exclave in the West to Yekaterinburg in the east. Sochi, St. Petersburg, Rostov, Krasnodar Nizhny Novgorod, and Moscow are all major host cities as well.

The security environment for travellers to the World Cup primarily consists of a risk protests may take place simultaneously – though they are formally barred in host cities as they were in Sochi. While the risk of terrorism remains, it is the security vacuum outside the host cities that is arguably more concerning

While Caucasus-based Islamist extremist groups threatened both the Winter Olympics and the World Cup, the threat on the former was far more credible. Sochi had never before held such a major event and the city was expanded exponentially in the decade proceeding it, while the idea such a major event required concentric rings of security forces did little to ensure confidence in travellers unfamiliar with the country. It also lies close to the regions of the North Caucasus that saw widespread terrorist activity only three to four years prior, though now it has been largely silenced, in part as fighters went to Iraq and Syria to join the conflict there.

The security provisions proved effective, albeit not replicable for the multi-city football championships. Instead, the Kremlin has deployed additional security forces to all host cities. For spectators of the World Cup a venerable plethora of Russian uniforms are on parade. Ministry of Interior police, the Federal Security Service (FSB), special ‘tourist police, the newly-created Rosgvardia (Russian Guard) – often labelled a Putinite praetorian guard – and even the infamous OMON riot police units with their boxy metal uniforms and shields are all on view before and after the games.

These mass deployments have been made possible by moving units away from cities that are not hosting games. Yaroslavl, Voronezh, Kursk, Saratov, and dozens of other sizeable cities have seen their local security forces, from elite units to street cops, deployed to other cities the games. Some local officials have already complained of rising crime, though not too loudly.

But the opposition is preparing to take advantage. In response to the government’s attempt to bury an announcement that the pensions age would rise from 60 to 65 for men and 55 to 62 for women during the championships’ opening ceremony, prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny has now called for a series of protests against the move on 1 July.

Navalny stated tongue-in-cheek he is happy to comply with the ban on demonstrations in World Cup host cities, and will instead seek to hold them in those secondary cities from which the security forces have been drained. The Kremlin is unlikely to allow such protests, but they will likely go ahead without sanction, which will put the Kremlin in the awkward situation of not wanting to be seen to crack down amid the World’s attention. To mitigate that risk, the Kremlin may arrange mass arrests of opposition figures.

The deterioration of Russia’s domestic-based terror groups in recent years means the risk of terrorism compared to 2014 is less, though the emergence of new tactics employed by the Islamic State means a high baseline risk will remain. But for most visitors the event will most likely be highly secure – overly so perhaps given the masses of security forces. The 1 July demonstrations may add a new dynamic. However, although the pension increase truly does have the potential to rile the population, the circus of the World Cup may well temper this. Especially if Russia makes it past the qualifying stages.