Terror Threat Looms Over Olympics Opening Ceremony: Propaganda Reacts

Written by Matt Wickham UCMC/HWAG analyst

The global war on terrorism remains ever present, despite the previous years’ shift in attention towards other instability factors such as Russia’s war on Ukraine and heightened tensions in the Middle East after the Israel-Hamas conflict. However, the recent terror attack on Russia’s Crocus City Hall, responsibilty claimed by ISIS (although Russia pushes otherwise), serves as a stark reminder that this war is far from over. 

With the Paris 2024 Olympics swiftly approaching, Russian propaganda has capitalized on recent security concerns in Paris, notably, France’s intelligence service’s recommendation to cancel the opening ceremony due to increased risks of a terrorist attack. This warning comes just a few days after French President Macron raised the alert level to that of the most elevated—imminent. With the Kremlin harbouring unconcealed resentment toward the IOC and the West for Russia’s exclusion from competing in the games, these developments provide ammunition for Russian propaganda to sow discord and undermine trust in France’s ability to ensure safety during the Olympics. The goal – exact revenge by diminishing the significance and attendance of the games, claiming a lack of safety measures. However this is just a part of the Kremlin’s geopolitical plan…

Olympic Terror Threat: Nothing New?

The Olympics hold significant symbolic meaning, particularly in terms of soft power projection and fostering national pride and prestige, and so it is a huge feat for France to host the games, not to mention for all athletes present. With its global audience and iconic status, the event always becomes a prime target for terrorist groups. The preemptive warnings issued by intelligence agencies before each of the games are nothing new but rather routine. Host nations regularly name terrorism as one of the prevailing threats to the games, demonstrating their commitment to ensuring the safety of athletes and spectators alike. 

In the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China identified terrorism as the biggest threat. This fear was realized when an attack struck western China four days before the opening weekend in the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang, where the terrorists (reportedly two Uyghur Islamists connected to the separatist movement) killed sixteen police officers. Moreover, leading up to the 2012 London Olympics, concerns over lone wolf attacks and a reported foiled cyanide hand lotion plot heightened security measures in the UK. Similarly, ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics, a group from Interpol was sent to Brazil as pre-Games arrests of individuals suspected of plotting attacks were reported. 

Notably, even Russia, in hosting the 2014 Winter Games, faced terror threats, with the FSB claiming to have thwarted a plot by Caucasus Emirate (a jihadist organisation) prior to the event. That is to say, these instances underscore the significant interest terrorist groups have shown in targeting major international sporting events in the 21st century, regardless of what country the games are hosted in, and this year’s Olympics is no exception.

However, Russian propaganda is now capitalizing on the lingering grief among Russians in the aftermath of the Crocus City attack to shift focus away from the significant security failure by the Kremlin to, instead, hypothetical failures in ‘non-friendly’ states that have not yet (and perhaps never) materialized. 

A PR-Campaign to absolve Ukraine of any blame for the Moscow Attack

Macron’s recent vocal support for Ukraine has made France a prime target for Russian propagandists, and so, anything the Kremlin can do to depict the games as a failure, it will. They are using these latest warnings as a means to humiliate Macron and the West as incapable of countering a threat on their own soil. Interesting, coming from a state that has literally just suffered a devastating attack, in part due to ignoring all the warnings from the West.

Armen Gasparyan, Russian propagandist, claims that perhaps the real reason for cancelling the hugely expensive ceremony is that France’s financial resources for the games have been depleted after diverting funds to support what he derogatorily terms as “farmers” (a reference to Ukrainians). Meanwhile, other propagandist channels propagate the idea that France’s preoccupation with countering Russia in Ukraine has rendered it vulnerable to terrorism and, thus, in all senses, a weak nation: “All their efforts are focused on countering the Russian threat” (Militarist Propaganda Channel). Other prominent Telegram propaganda channels claim that, calls to cancel the opening ceremony in fear of a terror attack are a mere “collective west” PR campaign aimed at hyping up the terror threat to absolve Ukraine of blame for what Russia has tried to peddle as Ukraine’s “involvement” in the Crocus City Hall attack. 

The Friendship Games – Russia’s Answer

The Kremlin’s propaganda has begun to amplify calls for canceling the games altogether (at least for Russian athletes). Vitayazeva and Sergey Marden, hosts of Solovievlive, the outlet for all Russian state propaganda, question the sense of participating in the Olympics under such “precarious circumstances”, with “no guarantees of safety yet guarantees of terrorism.” 

Going forward, Russia will seek to rally more countries to boycott the games, all while attempting to bolster its own alternative: “The Friendship Games”, echoing events of the Cold War era. “Friendship-84” was the Soviet Union’s then response to its ideologically and politically motivated boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, deeming the games a hostile and anti-communist environment. The resurrected Friendship Games intend to entice more athletes by offering not only medal ceremonies but also cash prizes. So far, it has been reported that athletes from 70 nations in 36 sports have confirmed their participation—a blatant attempt to rewrite history and undermine the Olympic Games’ legitimacy, further entangling the world in a political web that favours Russia. This attempt, however, has been condemned by the IOC as a violation of the Olympic Charter – not that it changes Russia’s plans.

While Russian propaganda criticizes and intimidates France over perceived Olympic security lapses and a disregard for safety if the ceremony proceeds, the Kremlin persists in hosting international sports competitions amidst ongoing war and terrorism. This underscores Russian propaganda’s prioritization of information stability over the lives of its citizens, evident in its dismissal of Western intelligence warnings of an imminent terror attack in Moscow (specifically at a concert). In contrast, France is taking the threat seriously and exploring all options to prioritize safety, including the potential cancellation of the ceremony, no matter how humiliating. It’s also worth noting, France has not seen an Islamic State terrorist attack since November 2015, demonstrating a proactive and successful national intelligence and security apparatus.

What’s next? 

As the Olympics approach, Russian propaganda is poised to ramp up its efforts to sensationalize the perceived terrorist threat surrounding the games. That is not to say the threat isn’t real; it is. As history shows, terror activity always increases as the games approach, yet it’s a mere byproduct of the Olympics’ worldwide significance and success.

Going forward, one should expect a significant number of Russian athletes to succumb to pressure from the Kremlin to boycott the games, citing safety concerns and a lack of interest in the games as the reason. The Kremlin could also apply this same pressure on its allies, although achieving widespread compliance among its international partners will be difficult. 

Furthermore, continued efforts will be made to ridicule Macron’s handling of the Olympics, linking it to his increased support for Ukraine and therefore an ignoring of the needs of his citizens, using protests (which occur regularly in France) as confirmation of this. Regardless of whether the opening ceremony takes place or not, Russia will most likely step up its campaign to portray the Olympics as a failure and unsafe, with all those who win medals as not the “true winners” due to Russia’s absence. The Kremlin will put a huge amount of resources into contrasting it with the fabricated hype surrounding the upcoming Friendship Games. Through the Friendship Games, Russia will seek to demonstrate international support for its geopolitical ambitions and vision of a “new world order,” emphasizing its alliances with purportedly “friendly” nations (axis of evil countries) and a decisive distancing from the West. They will refer this as the West’s isolation – a play on the what the West attempted to do to Russia post-full-scale invasion, which it did with significant success, eventhough the Kremlin claims the opposite.