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Boston Marathon bombing has Russia concerned about its own event security

Russia is set to host three major international sporting events in the next year, including the 2014 Olympics. The Boston explosions are highlighting the security challenges it faces.

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Russian police officers watch the ski jumping competition at the FIS Ski jumping Cup in Sochi, Russia, in December 2012. The organizers of the World Athletics Championship in Moscow said on Tuesday that they will beef up security in the wake of deadly explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP/File

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The bombs that struck the famous Boston Marathon on Monday were watched by Russians with a mixture of horror and sympathy for the victims.

But the tragedy also triggered a rising note of concern about matters closer to home: Russia is set to host three high-profile global sports events in the next year, and few believe that Russian security forces are anywhere near ready to protect them against a sophisticated attack.

"For Russia, which is about to stage a lot of large-scale events, this is a serious wake-up call," Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko was quoted as saying by the official RIA-Novosti agency. "Of course, we will toughen up our security measures."

President Vladimir Putin immediately condemned the "barbarous" attacks in Boston, extended condolences to Americans and, in a message posted on the Kremlin website, pledged that Russia "will be ready, if necessary, to assist in the US authorities’ investigation."

The Russian government has lobbied hard and spent a vast fortune for the opportunity to host several major sports spectacles, which raise Russia's profile on the world stage and showcase its undeniable economic progress over the past decade. Mr. Putin has repeatedly warned his security forces to prepare for the possibility that terrorists, also seeking the limelight, may target those events.

They include the global student Universiade championships, which are expected to attract more than 12,000 participants from 170 countries in June this year. They'll be held in the Volga city of Kazan, where extreme Islamist terrorists gunned down two moderate clerics last year.

In August, the World Championships in Athletics will be hosted by Moscow, a city that has been repeatedly hit by deadly attacks by terrorists operating out of Russia's restive northern Caucasus region.

"Terrorists don't choose any old target, but the more vulnerable areas from the security services' point of view. Sports events that take place in the open air are harder to protect because [attacks] can happen anywhere," the head of the Russian Athletics Federation, Vyacheslav Balakhnichev, told journalists Tuesday.

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Early next year, Russia will host the Sochi Winter Games, the most expensive Olympics ever and what experts describe as a security nightmare.

"It's way more complicated in Sochi than it was in Boston," says Andrei Soldatov, coauthor of The New Nobility, a study of the Russian security state, and editor of Agentura.ru, an online journal about security issues.

"Sochi is adjacent to the Russian northern Caucasus, where there is an ongoing insurgency, and it abuts Abkhazia," which is a breakaway territory of Georgia, with which Russia fought a brief war in 2008, he says.

"The Olympics are a big, complex event, and it's not just one venue that needs to be protected but a whole, vast area. It would be enough for terrorists to hit in one place to disrupt the entire Games. Nobody can guarantee security in a place like Sochi," he adds.

Some Russian policymakers say the Boston attack and the palpable threat to Russia's upcoming sporting events demonstrate that the priorities of US-Russia relations have fallen out of kilter. They argue the focus should be urgently reoriented to antiterrorist cooperation rather than the host of acrimonious disputes that have lately bogged bilateral ties down in the worst diplomatic chill since the cold war.

In the past week alone, the United States and Russia have fusilladed one other with blacklists of allegedly criminal officials on the other side, and these people – most of whom have never been convicted in any court of law – now face public shame and overseas sanctions.

"It is important for Russia-US relations that the American side understands that the main threat to the United States comes not from the people on the Magnitsky List [the alleged Russian criminals blacklisted under US law], but from terrorists," RIA-Novosti quoted Russian Sen. Viktor Ozerov as saying. "Our countries should make a mutual effort to fight this evil instead of writing up lists and counterlists."

Dmitry Golochkin, a security specialist with the Russian Public Chamber, a Kremlin-sponsored assembly of civil society groups, says the attacks in Boston should focus everyone's mind on the basic priorities of civilization.

"Terrorism is a challenge to the whole world, and particularly to Russia," he says.

"For the past few years we've had relative calm, and there's an impression that the terrorist threat is technically under control. I hope this is not just the calm before the storm."

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