Darren Aldrich is the Chief Operating Officer of ETS Risk Management, Inc., a global provider of travel security, Travel Risk Management, executive protection, threat intelligence and major event security. Frank is the former FBI Assistant Director of Counterintelligence, and recent head of Investigations, Special Event Security and Workplace Violence Prevention for General Electric.
How safe is it to visit Russia?
Virtually no travel to Russia is without risk. Russia travel risk assessment is driven by three factors:
- Location specific inherent risks;
- The nature of the travel;
- And, the individual traveller.
For example, hate crimes against foreigners, minorities, and the LGBT community occur in Russia because of an apparent tolerance for such conduct as reflected in weak legislative prohibitions and an unwillingness to prosecute. Deadly terror attacks happen in Moscow, the north Caucasus and, most recently, St. Petersburg because of long-standing organic ethnic, religious and regional strife such as the Chechen/Russian conflict including possible sympathies for ISIS within the Chechen region.
Travel in connection with special events or sporting matches raises the already well documented daily risk of tourists targeted by pickpockets and muggers, often by organized gangs in major cities. Individual travellers of Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent or who simply “don’t look like they belong” in the eyes of certain locals should exercise particularly enhanced vigilance.
Business travellers should understand that electronic devices are frequently targeted for intrusion via malware and other means in an attempt by the Russian intelligence services to access proprietary corporate information for a competitive edge.
Despite the inherent risks, travellers who make the effort to seek the “ground truth” of their destination through their own government alerts, reading current country risk profiles offered by established security firms, and who maintain vigilance and a low-profile, can easily mitigate the risks and enjoy a memorable trip to a vast and proud nation.
How safe will it be to go to the World Cup?
Travelers to the World Cup are advised of the significant risk posed by organized hooligans who seek to engage in brutal fights with opposing fans from countries like Britain, France and other nations.
Russian hooliganism is marked by elements distinct from traditional hooliganism in the UK and Europe. Law enforcement agencies with decades of experience in securing soccer competitions have documented observations of Russian thugs who are highly trained and prepared to fight. These hooligans physically train in body-building and fight techniques and they make a point of not drinking alcohol during matches to maintain an advantage over their UK or European counterparts.
Disturbingly, Russian government leaders seemingly encourage such behaviour with Russian Ministers quoted saying “Keep up the good work”, and Putin himself observing how Russian fans had quite literally beaten the English fans.
However, a major world event such as the World Cup is likely to be secured by the highest level of Russian national security agencies who understand the negative impact globally of any major incident during the World Cup. The largely incident-free Winter Olympics in Sochi, even under threat of terrorism, is evidence that Russian can secure a major event when it chooses.
What are the biggest risks?
Opportunistic crimes such as pick-pocketing and other thefts are common in major Russian cities. This risk includes theft from hotel rooms and theft from vehicles. Cases are well-documented of visitors whose drinks were spiked at bars for the purpose of robbery, rape or other violence. Unconscious victims are often left outside sometimes with life-threatening implications especially in the cold winter months. Further reports exist of criminals impersonating police officers for the purpose of harassing and robbing tourists.
What are the overlooked risks?
Travellers to Russia often overlook or dismiss the reality that the Russian government is in near total control of infrastructure which facilitates intelligence service targeting of western business and government travellers to include remote intrusion into their devices, or, even outright theft of their laptops, smart phones and other devices.
Similarly, hotel frequented by western travellers are particularly notorious for intelligence collection, entrapment and attempts to compromise western business and government visitors. This fact poses a dilemma for travellers seeking to avoid such targeting by possibly choosing a local, non-westernized hotel.
However, such a choice often increases the odds of opportunistic crimes such as theft or assault and can antagonize the intelligence services who may become perturbed by your diversion from the usual hotel chains.
How should people mitigate this?
Risk mitigation remains similar to advice given for most international travel.
Specifically, avoid open display of wealth, including expensive jewellery, and anything that may identify you as a tourist. Avoid walking alone at night. Be vigilant for pickpockets in main tourist areas and around the main railway stations, and keep your passport tightly secured. Always buy your own drinks at the bar and keep them in sight at all times.
To mitigate the risk of being victimized by “fake” police officers, always insist on seeing identification if you are stopped.
What duty of care provisions should employers sending staff to Russia have in place? What should employees ask for?
Business leaders sending employees to Russia are advised to include professional risk management measures into the travel plan.
These measures should include physical security guidance, protection of intellectual property, and potential medical consultation and even evacuation. The addition of enhanced security enables your team to focus on business objectives within minimal constraints or distractions. Employees should ask for loaner devices to take that contain only the data needed for that trip and bring a reliable communication device.
Employees traveling for lengthy periods, particularly to more remote areas of Russia, should understand that the local hospital blood supply may not be screened for HIV and other diseases as is the standard in the US, UK and other nations. Therefore, employees should ask about medical evacuation plans in the event of an unexpected need for surgery.