COLUMBIA, S.C. — Lt. Col. Robert W. Schaefer has spent more than two decades studying terrorism in the Caucasus, the region where next month’s Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, Russia.
Now, the 48-year-old Harvard graduate, who is stationed at U.S. Army Central, formerly Third Army, at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, has been tapped by NBC to be its on-air security analyst during the Games Feb. 7-23. It’s a position heightened by terror threats against the Games by Islamic separatists.
In an interview with The State on Thursday, Schaefer, who leaves for Russia Feb. 1, said those planning to travel to the region should be aware of the threats and take them seriously.
“But if they exercise due diligence and some caution, they will be safe,” said Schaefer, who has worked extensively in the region as a Green Beret, particularly in the Republic of Georgia in 2002.
He urged visitors to stay in more popular areas of the city. And he warned that other dangers exist besides terrorism — prostitution, organized crime, counterfeiting.
“Don’t wander around Sochi looking for that perfect out-of-the-way spot,” he said. “Part of what makes Russia great is that it’s exotic without being too scary. But don’t let your guard down too much.”
Schaefer is an Army Green Beret and Eurasian Foreign Area Officer. He has served in a variety of special units and participated in nearly every U.S. overseas operation since 1990.
He has extensive experience with counterinsurgency and counter-terrorist operations around the world and has lived and worked in many countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia as a diplomat and adviser to foreign governments and militaries.
A native of Villa Hills, Ky., in suburban Cincinnati, Schaefer is a frequent contributor to major media outlets such as CNN, National Public Radio, the British Broadcasting Corp. and Voice of America. His book “The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus” won multiple national awards and was named to Kirkus Reviews’ “Best of 2011.”
He said he was fascinated by Russia as a child, and was a student of Russian literature when he grew up. Much of that literature was set during the Russian-Chechnyan conflicts of the 19th century.
“I was one of those weird kids who read Dostoevsky on the beach when I was 12 years old,” he said.
All Green Berets have to learn a foreign language. He chose Russian in the 1980s.
Schaefer was then hand-picked by the Army to be a primary planner in the United States’ Georgia Train and Equip mission in 2002 – the first unclassified overseas operation after 9/11.
The Green Beret’s “bailiwick is insurgency and counter-insurgency,” Schaefer said. “Where is there an ongoing insurgency in Eurasia? It is where my two professional competencies overlap.”
Sochi is a city of 350,000 on the Black Sea and is especially exposed to terrorism because it is surrounded by a mountainous region that has been rife with religious and ethnic strife for generations. Central to that strife is the Chechnyan Republic, a member of the Russian Federation.
Chechnya, which is east of Sochi between Georgia and the Caspian Sea, has a largely Muslim population.
Chechnya won its independence in the First Chechnyan War, from 1994-96, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. When Islamists invaded the neighboring Russian Republic of Dagestan in 1999 to support separatists there, it triggered another war and the Soviets retook Chechnya.
Since then, the region has been plagued by terrorism, the most infamous act coming in October 2002, when 40 Chechen rebels seized a Moscow theater and took 800 civilians hostage. The crisis ended when Russian authorities gassed the theater, killing all the rebels and 140 hostages.
Chechnya drew headlines in the United States last year when it was revealed that the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, had ethnic roots there that played a part in their radicalization.
Six months ago, Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov, sometimes called “Russia’s bin Laden,” threatened attacks on civilians in Russia and urged Islamic separatists to disrupt the Olympics. He described the games as “satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors.”
But while Umarov is the public face of insurgents in the Caucasus, the entire region, particularly Dagestan, has competing Islamist groups that could launch attacks, Schaefer said.
“You have multiple groups all fighting for the same goal – the spread of Islamic law,” he said. “If someone killed Umarov between now and the Olympics, it wouldn’t change anything.”
Most recently, separatists said they have sent four “Black Widows” – widowed female suicide bombers – to attack the Games. One is believed to have already penetrated the perimeter.
Schaefer said the Black Widow phenomena started in 2002-03, when female terrorists were recruited to bomb railroad stations and other targets in Moscow because they were less likely to draw attention from authorities.
“Moscow was the terrorist capital of the world then because there were so many attacks,” Schaefer said. And since then, “Black Widows show up every now and again. And you also have the guys who just want shoot people and kill people and make money off the war.”
To protect the athletes and visitors, the Russians have established a “Ring of Steel” security perimeter – 60 miles long and 25 miles wide – around the city. They promise near-total surveillance of everyone within the zone using every type of security apparatus from drones to submarines, as well as deploying 100,000 police and military troops.
But some members of Congress say Russia isn’t doing enough to assure that athletes are safe during the Games.
“I can’t say yet” if the Russians are doing enough to ensure the safety of the Games, Schaefer said. “What I will say is that it’s real hard to stop a committed terrorist and even harder to stop a committed terrorist who is willing to sacrifice himself for the cause. Many people in the United States would like to see more cooperation (between U.S. and Russia) than we have. Any congressman would be irresponsible not to question security.”
‘The Myrtle Beach of Russia’
Given its location, many have questioned whether Sochi was an appropriate choice for the Olympics.
“It’ll work,” Schaefer said. “But I would have chosen somewhere that was not in a subtropical zone to have the Winter Olympics.”
He said Sochi is considered to be “the Myrtle Beach of Russia. Sochi is kind of a special place in the minds of the people of the Soviet Union. And this is an opportunity for a lot of investment.”
He added that it also is an opportunity for Russian president Vladimir Putin to polish his legacy.
“If he can make the Olympics happen in Sochi, then he has done something no Russian leader has ever done before – subjugate the Caucuses,” Schaefer said. “That is something that even Catherine the Great couldn’t do.”
It will be Schaefer’s first Olympics. He said he is “totally psyched.”
“To get a free ticket to the Olympics? Anybody would have to say that’s completely awesome,” Schaefer said. “But helping let Americans know what is happening there is great.”
Schaefer urged those who want more information to read his book as a primer on the history of insurgency in the Caucasus. He also will be tweeting live through his handle @RobertWSchaefer.
Schaefer and his wife, Olya, have lived in Sumter since 2011. She is a project manager for Apperio, where she helps companies integrate Google Apps or Salesforce into their operations. She telecommutes from their home.
Schaefer will retire from the Army Feb. 1 when he leaves for Russia, in order to be more open in his comments about events there. The couple plan to stay in Sumter for the foreseeable future. “I’ll have to see if I get any good (work) offers” for life after the Army, he said.