The “respond with strength” dictum governing Russia’s political realm is well-known, so suffice it to say that Russia now shines forth as an example of those “disproportionate response” signs you find all over those little corners of the world where both the people and the police are fine with an angry homeowner venting frustration upon the burglar in his living room, briefly and in moderation, before calling upon their official policemen.
Except that Putin doesn’t do “moderation” when it comes to political power and showing strength. And, as an avid chess-player and as former Colonel of the KGB (now FSB), dear Vladimir Putin doesn’t wait inefficiently for a burglar to happen by and get caught like some amateur. Not at all. No, he makes sure that the specific burglar he wants will arrive when he wants at the house he chose, not only for its highly relevant and symbolic contents but for its garden, which place offers perfect concealment for a lot of very angry, very professional policemen to witness and to act. President Putin is no stranger to branch-and-sequence planning of the most thorough kind, and to its operational enactment of the most ruthless sort.
It’s just his job… stage-management.
So let us take Sochi as the stage now, drawn upon its map below the latitudes and longitudes so that is resembles not so much a city as a chessboard. Let us populate the game with plenty of pawns in the form of Russian security personnel and Olympic tourists, since they will bear the brunt of any attack that President Putin did not plan, as will the terrorist pawns across the board. Let us populate the game with bishops and knights, the upper-level security personnel and the undercover operatives, both white-hat and black-hat; both Russia and the terrorists have many of these two sorts of pieces, who move in unusual and sometimes unexpected directions. The castles can be the hardened targets, such as the Olympic village and the airports. The White King is Public Opinion, the White Queen is Olympic Spirit. The Black King is the mastermind of any successful attack that President Putin did not plan, and the Black Queen is Civil War herself.
At this point we must ask, if any terrorist attack occurs, however slight its impact, however distant from the city… what is the outcome of this game?
At this point you must ask, why are you still looking at the chessboard in Sochi? Because that’s just scenery and props.
The answer lies inside the Kremlin.
If any attack occurs, there will be a few options to respond, assuming it was genuinely a terrorist attack, given the relative amount of damage (of all sorts) created. That can be played loudly or quietly for political and optical ends.
If any attack occurs, there are already plans to respond, assuming it was an agent-provocateur operation designed for noticeable impact. Then the “respond with strength” dictum requires showing that strength:
First, by locking Russia down tightly. Back to the old checkpoints and permission-to-travel visas. Only temporarily, only because of the emergency. But once things are locked down, it takes a long time to win them free again. How long is temporary, “for the duration”, really going to last?
Second, by quickly advertising some evidence to indicate the official scapegoat, working up sentiment and support toward a reprisal. This will be Dagestan, the Ukraine, or possibly Ossetia as tonight’s news and communications indicate.
Result: It may be a full-scale invasion in the 1956 Hungarian Style, an occupation in the 1968 Prague style, or anything further down the hot/cold scale of conflict.
Outcome: Russia has shown strength and retaken control of key territory.
Result: The UN and EU will trip over themselves trying to figure out an appropriate response, more worried about being seen to be outraged as the geopolitical ramifications are thought through (Pipeline turned off? Does France keep its biggest military customer?)
Result: So too with NATO: As President Obama has forced the US Navy to play defense only (their ships are on land-evacuation operations status), the Americans will be distracted in those first crucial hours and days, too. Will England or France pick up the mantle of leadership, or can they afford to, as quickly as it needs to be worn? This leaves the others arguing over which countries will send what personnel or equipment, or how Spain won’t do anything except medical tents, after all these years still cowed by its Madrid bombings.
Outcome: By the time an agreement is reached, Russia’s response is already (perhaps fully) enacted.
Third, by manipulating the public story. Putin retains control of Russian media, so the problem will be to persuade the rest of the world of two things: 1) that the bad guy was who he says it was, and 2) the FSB or other officialdom clearly were not involved. This is an important task given the speed of communication today, but shutting down the country’s comms “during the crisis” will buy time and, since that action would occur in a standard terrorist attack response situation anyway, will buy some neutrality. After that it becomes a media scrum for pravda, although if we’re lucky then outside of Russia we may get some truth mixed in there. But by then things will be well underway so extra-Russian optics won’t really matter.
This is, after all, Realpolitik. Realpolitik, Russian style.
Hopefully absolutely nothing happens at these Games but, sadly, so many other problems might be solved by planning one little problem here – just as the Russian apartment bombings ruse by FSB (formerly Putin’s KGB) began the 2nd Chechen War.
So I’m not sure anything nice or truthful has much time left to live once the Olympic Games begin. I hope this will turn out to be totally above-board and innocent and that everything goes off without any violence… but that’s not really Mother Russia, is it? The White Queen, Olympic Spirit, hasn’t got a lot of weapons to wield against that old bear.
Therefore, speaking as the Red Queen about the incident which I now expect, there can be only one winner. If Putin controls the situation completely then he may well come out as the White King, ruler of Public Opinion and President of Russia. But if Putin slips in the slightest detail, the nastiest piece of all will sweep off the board in Sochi and pull many others into her train leaving town, playing a new game that guarantees her victory every time it’s played: She is the Black Queen, Civil War.