RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin has backed out of a blanket ban on protests at next month's Winter Olympics, just days before Russian security forces are due to bring down a "ring of steel" around the Black Sea resort hosting the games.
More than 30,000 police and soldiers, backed by anti-aircraft missiles, warships and military aircraft are being deployed to Sochi, in southern Russia, amid fears terrorists who killed 34 people in suicide bombings in Volgograd last week will seek to strike what will be the most expensive games in Olympic history.
A massive security operation -- the biggest at any Olympics -- is due to begin on Tuesday, a full month before the opening ceremony on February 7, but Mr Putin issued a decree yesterday scrapping a controversial ban on protests that was due to be introduced this weekend.
The announcement was made after Mr Putin arrived in Sochi on Friday to begin a final round of inspections of Olympic facilities and infrastructure.
He was joined by Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister and one-time president, to ski several runs at the Gazprom-built Laura ski resort and biathlon venue on Friday, before continuing his visit to the coastal stadiums yesterday.
Mr Putin's arrival in the city coincided with a bomb scare, with police evacuating a shopping centre in Sochi following a warning. Police later said no device had been found, and bloggers suggested that the alarm was the work of a hoaxer. But the incident highlighted how high tensions are running in the city after last week's two suicide attacks.
Russia has spared no expense on the Sochi games, ploughing an estimated €38bn into the organisation and construction effort, making it by far the most expensive Olympic Games ever.
But Mr Putin has invested much more than money in the project. Having personally overseen the Olympic effort since he led Russia's winning bid in 2007, the event is seen in Russia and abroad as his pet project.
And like any protective parent, the Russian government is also making sure that the world's most expensive Olympics will also be its most secure.
A decree signed by Mr Putin last August establishes two security zones, one "controlled", where visitors and vehicles will be subject to thorough security and document checks, and one entirely closed "forbidden" zone stretching from the border with Abkhazia and across a large part of the mountainous Sochi national park.
To access the "controlled zone", which stretches roughly 60 miles along the coast and 25 miles inland, spectators will have to go through police checkpoints where their baggage and vehicles will be X-rayed.
This "ring of steel" will begin to fall into place on Tuesday, when Russia's Federal Security Service, which has overall responsibility for Olympic security, will close the entire Sochi municipality and seaboard to any vehicle without a local registration number or special accreditation.
Meanwhile, hunting shops and wholesalers will have to suspend sales of weapons, ammunition or explosives (and certain industrial and agricultural supplies).
The area will be patrolled and guarded by some 37,000 policemen and troops.
The Russian defence minister revealed earlier this year that at least six Pantsir-S medium range surface to air missile systems -- capable of intercepting both aircraft and incoming cruise missiles -- will guard the skies.
By comparison, the London Olympics, which Russian security chiefs previous tacitly criticised for going over the top, deployed just 18,000 security personnel.
Navy destroyers and coast guard cutters are already a near-constant presence within sight of Sochi's promenade and security has long been tight at the gleaming new airport terminal built for the games.
But what no one can know is whether all this will be enough to prevent a repeat of the terrorist attacks Russia's most wanted insurgent leader has called for. Doku Umarov, a veteran Chechen rebel whose notoriety and elusiveness have earned him the moniker of "Russia's Osama bin Laden", released a video message in July cancelling a moratorium on attacking Russian civilians and calling on his followers to use "maximum force" to disrupt the games.
While security experts say Mr Umarov's influence and ability to co-ordinate a campaign of terror has now waned, last week's attacks demonstrated that Russia's Islamist insurgents still have the ability to strike outside their bases in the North Caucasus -- and potentially at the Games themselves.
© Sunday Telegraph