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A new, trickier Russia emerging As nation shakes off aftereffects of Soviet collapse, U.S. needs vigilance

Russia's apparent passing of battle plans to Saddam Hussein before war in Iraq demands scrutiny -- unless, of course, the leak was planned to fog Baghdad's planning with misinformation. But if Russia betrayed a trust, it was misplaced.

The decade of political weakness that followed the breakup of the former Soviet Union is drawing to its inevitable close, and Russia is reemerging economically and diplomatically. While the United States should pursue aggressively an explanation of any information-passing by Russia's ambassador to Iraq, it must also shape its wider relationship with caution.

Former Sen. John R. Edwards and former Rep. Jack F. Kemp chaired a recent bipartisan task force on Russia for the Council on Foreign Relations. It concluded that a long-sought U.S.-Russia "partnership" is a valid long-tern goal, but remains unreachable for now. Cooperation on specific issues -- such as the current Russian offer to process nuclear fuels for Iran to keep it from developing nuclear weapons -- should be the primary focus, the report concluded.

Under President Vladimir V. Putin, Russia is less democratic and more assertive in its home region. It cut Ukraine's gas supplies when elections there didn't go the Russia-favored way. It also wants to limit American bases and influence in former Soviet republics along the Afghanistan border. It continues to cultivate bilateral relations with Iran; seeks to improve relations with China; and, recently, has explored relationships with Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

Internally, Russia cracked down on press freedoms and rights of dissent, reasserted government control of the energy sector and became less pluralistic politically.

Russia's interests will sometimes clash with America's. The United States must remain wary of that, and seek carefully considered spheres of cooperation where interests, such as the need to curtail international proliferation of nuclear weapons capabilities, coincide. It would be wise to use care in dealing with the Russian bear -- since its teeth are again showing.

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