MOSCOW (AP) — When a taxi driver suddenly rammed into pedestrians near Red Square, despite intense security measures around Russian cities for the World Cup, fans and other visitors asked themselves: Are we safe?
Moscow authorities insist Saturday’s taxi crash was an accident, after the driver apparently fell asleep . And car accidents can happen just about anywhere.
Vehicles can also be used as weapons, though. Cities from New York to Barcelona can attest to that.
Overall, Russia has rolled out exceptionally high security measures for its first-ever World Cup, coordinating with law enforcement from around the world. The measures can seem heavy-handed — fans forced to walk nearly a kilometer (half a mile) to enter a stadium, Cossacks roaming on horseback, riot police watching over night club parties. Officials say they’re just trying to ensure that fans can safely have fun.
WHAT FANS FACE
The last thing Russian President Vladimir Putin wants is for an attack to spoil this party. He wants the world to walk away from this tournament in awe, not in fear.
So Russia has closed sea ports to dangerous cargo, halted factory production that might pose chemical risks, and positioned fighter jets, just in case.
In the city center of Kazan, police and military patrols are posted about every 500 meters (yards). To enter the stadium territory, an Associated Press journalist was made to open all his cigarette packs and test out his lighters, among other security measures.
A similar scene greets fans in Nizhny Novgorod. Fans must walk several hundred meters through double security checkpoints, with X-ray machines and body frisks, plastic police barriers and metal fences — just to reach the “Fan Fest” site where matches are shown on giant screens.
In the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, uniformed police stand guard near bars downtown, and sealed off all roads around the arena several hours ahead of the first match Friday. The traffic lights continued functioning, ignored.
In Sochi on the Black Sea, which hosted the 2014 Olympics, the stadium is surrounded on three sides by the well-secured Olympic Park. That creates a natural buffer and leaves only one well-protected road that fans can funnel through to enter the stadium.
WATCH OUT FOR CARS
Saturday’s taxi crash in Moscow revived a long-standing concern: that attackers could use cars to attack soft targets like shopping areas or crowded sidewalks.
Moscow police said Sunday this risk was already built into World Cup security measures, and the crash was purely accidental. FIFA and Russia’s World Cup organizing committee wouldn’t comment on whether any extra measures were put in place after the crash.
But AP reporters discovered the security perimeter for cars was expanded around Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium for Sunday’s Germany-Mexico match — even beyond the broad limit drawn for Thursday’s opening game.
In Saransk, a six-lane bridge over the Insar River is shut to all traffic to keep cars away from the stadium crowds on match days. Traffic is blocked not only on the territory of the Mordovia Arena but also from a perimeter stretching another 250 meters (yards) from the property’s edge.
WHY THE WORRY
The threats to Russia, and the danger inherent in the world’s most-watched sporting event, are real.
First and worst is terrorism. Moscow, St. Petersburg and Volgograd have suffered suicide bombings by Islamic extremists in recent years — and count among the 11 cities hosting World Cup matches over the next month.
While security measures are similar at other major sporting events, this one is especially challenging because it lasts so long and is so spread out.
The U.S. State Department even sent a travel warning Friday titled “Russia, Level 3: Reconsider Travel.” In addition to terrorism, the warning said Americans “are often victims of harassment, mistreatment and extortion by law enforcement and other officials.”
The dramatically worded message may be in part politically driven. Security cooperation has shrunk as Russia-West ties have suffered in recent years over the wars in Syria and Ukraine, alleged Russian election meddling, and the poisoning of an ex-spy in Britain. U.S. government staff in Russia has shrunk after tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions.
Hooliganism is the other big problem. Russia is working with FIFA and authorities in Britain and other countries to identify threats , and threatens to deport anyone unruly.
KILLING THE FUN?
At times, the security threatens to extinguish the tournament’s festive spirit.
As crowds streamed into Moscow’s Spartak stadium Saturday, a police van rumbled through slowly, keeping watch and separating the throngs. Cheerful chants fell silent.
At Bar 11 in Kazan, a newly-opened small club with a DJ playing records, heavily armed OMON police officers came in twice overnight Saturday for routine checks.
For fans, the security presence is both a reminder of the risk and a relief, said Jan Petersen of Denmark, heading into Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. “I feel pretty secure,” he said, but at the same time, “I feel the excitement.”
Samuel Petrequin in Kazan, Brett Martel in Saransk, Gerald Imray in Nizhny Novgorod, Tim Booth in Sochi, Karel Janicek in Yekaterinburg, Rob Harris in Volgograd, Derek Gatopoulos in Rostov-on-Don and Amer Cohadzic in Moscow contributed.