On the foggy Friday afternoon of Jan. 17, a convoy carrying Russia’s top Olympic managers crawls up a narrow ridge of the Caucasus Mountains toward the Laura sports complex, one of the venues that will host the Winter Games. But the real master of the Games–Russian President Vladimir Putin–is already inside.
With the Sochi Olympics scheduled to begin on Feb. 7, nearly all the preparations have been finished. What’s left are the last-minute security precautions, “what we call fine-tuning,” says Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of Russia’s Olympic Organizing Committee. But all eyes in the final days are on Putin, who insists on managing the last details himself. He’s already laced up his skates to test the ice at the hockey rink. As the top Olympic managers wait in a conference room on an upper floor of the Laura complex, Putin pauses for several minutes in a ground-floor hallway, his head bowed, to inspect a report on Sochi’s transportation system. In whispers, his bodyguard warns me not to interrupt. “He considers these Games his baby,” Chernyshenko tells me afterward. “So it’s natural that he’s taking care of them himself.”
Natural, perhaps, but also necessary. Any security breach, let alone a terrorist attack during the Games, could blow a hole through Putin’s carefully constructed and fiercely guarded image as Russia’s great protector. Too much has already been wagered on this effort for him to leave anything to chance. Russia has spent nearly $2 billion on security alone, while the total cost of more than $50 billion will make these the costliest Olympics ever.
If all goes smoothly, Sochi could be the redeeming triumph of Putin’s career. A Sochi Games remembered for medals, records and hospitality rather than terrorism and fear could demonstrate that the rigid command structure he has installed during his nearly 10 years as President and nearly five as Prime Minister–running a government his critics dismiss as deeply corrupt and inefficient, sputtering along on easy profits from the sale of oil and gas–was exactly what was needed to show the world that modern Russia is capable of hosting one of the world’s greatest celebrations of sports.
But the attention Putin has lavished on “his baby” has also made it an enormously tempting target for his enemies. Sochi lies a day’s drive from the heartland of insurgents who have been fighting for more than a decade to turn the region into an Islamic state. Their tactics include regular suicide bombings: in the four months leading up to the Games, four separate bombings have struck cities close to Sochi, one in Pyatigorsk and three in Volgograd, killing at least 43 people and wounding dozens more. “Every terrorist in the region has been waiting for this chance to hit Putin where it hurts,” says Yulia Yuzik, an author who has written two books about suicide bombers in the region.
In a way, the insurgents have already succeeded in tainting these Olympics with fear. Although the Obama Administration has not advised athletes or spectators to stay away from Sochi, it warns of an “uptick in threat reporting.” And the talk of “black widow” suicide bombers and Internet threats from purported terrorists has Olympians rethinking plans to have family members make the trip. It is eerily reminiscent of the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, just months after 9/11, when armed FBI agents patrolled the slopes of Park City along with the National Ski Patrol, waiting for terrorists to descend from 10,000 feet high in the Rockies. None did.
Despite the escalating threats, Putin does not arrive at the Laura complex with his usual cortege of a dozen armored cars. He doesn’t need to. Sochi and its suburbs are already encircled in what authorities are calling the ring of steel, a security measure unprecedented in Olympic history. Some 40,000 troops have been deployed around Sochi, amounting to more than 10% of the city’s population. (By comparison, a police force of 6,000 guarded the last Winter Games in Vancouver, a city 30% larger than Sochi.) Cars registered in other parts of Russia have been barred from the city for the duration of the Games, and Sochi residents are discouraged from driving at all. In the mountain cluster of Olympic venues above Sochi, getting on a ski lift or crossing a pedestrian bridge requires a security-screening process no less stringent than those at New York City airports.
In essence, the ring of steel has returned Sochi to its original state–that of a fortress on Russia’s frontier. The armies of Czar Nicholas I erected its walls in the 1830s, when the Russian Empire was expanding southward to the Black Sea coast. Then as now, the main threat Russia faced in the region was not from foreigners but from the defiant gortsy, the local highlanders whose warfaring skills had been shaped by a history of fending off invaders, including the Romans, Persians and Ottoman Turks. Russia’s struggle to subdue the gortsy took most of the 19th century, as even the Czars’ most able caste of warriors–the Cossacks–struggled to pacify the native horsemen.
Ancient history and its grudges run through the present conflict, and Putin has revived some old-time methods for dealing with the threats. In 2008 he rearmed the Cossacks. Their military units had been disbanded in Soviet times, when the Communist Party persecuted their Orthodox Christian faith and derided their culture as a relic of the Russian monarchy. But less than a year after Russia was awarded the Games, the region that includes Sochi restored the Cossacks’ official status (and government paychecks) as defenders of the Russian borderlands–the same function they served under the Czars. Visitors to the Olympics will find them patrolling Sochi and its suburbs in their traditional uniform of lamb’s-wool hats and knee-high boots. “The Olympics will be our chance to prove our worth,” says Vladimir Davydov, a local Cossack officer and Sochi city councilman. “So we cannot allow ourselves to fail in defending them.”
Neither can Putin. The core promise of his leadership has always been security, even when it comes at the expense of civil liberties and democratic reforms. In 2000, when he first came to power, that was a bargain Russians were all too eager to accept. The freewheeling 1990s, the first decade of democracy in Russian history, had seen two wars against separatist guerrillas in the region of Chechnya and ended in 1999 with a string of bombings in Moscow. Putin took over the following year with his famous pledge to drown the terrorists “in the outhouse” and to restore a sense of calm.
So these Olympics are a test of whether Putin’s iron fist can guarantee security for even a couple of weeks in just one corner of the Caucasus. That is why the fortress of Sochi was built at such cost, and if it fails this time, Russia’s grip on those mountains will look as weak to the world as when the gortsy still used sabers instead of bombs. “We always knew the stakes,” says Chernyshenko. “We knew from the beginning that it’s unforgivable not to deliver everything that has been promised.” But as the opening ceremony has moved closer, so has the drumbeat of manhunts, terrorism alerts and explosions in Sochi’s backyard. With all that, the promise of a tranquil month of sports, and a Russia free from fear, may already be impossible to deliver.
–With reporting by Michael Crowley/Washington
This appears in the February 10, 2014 issue of TIME.