The start of a mini-cold war with Russia

If tensions continue to mount, there could be a fray at the G-8 summit.

Soulmates no longer, President Bush seems to be almost spoiling for a fight with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he accuses of turning his back on democratization.

Vice President Dick Cheney told a conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, that the Russian regime had unfairly restricted people's rights and used its oil and gas resources to intimidate Ukraine, its neighbor.

Then the vice president flew off to the oil-rich former Soviet republic, Kazakhstan, where onetime Communist bureaucrat Nursultan Nazarbayev rules with an iron hand and has banned all opposition parties. There, Mr. Cheney praised progress toward democratization, which many find hard to discern. He also talked to Mr. Nazarbayev about building an oil pipeline that would bypass Russia.

It is as though the United States, along with former Soviet republics and satellites, is seeking to draw a George Kennan-like line of containment, a sort of cordon sanitaire, around an unreconstructed Russia.

If tensions continue to mount, there could be a donnybrook at the summit of the G-8 industrial powers in St. Petersburg in mid-July, where Russia will be presiding for the first time.

It is hard to figure out why the Bush administration is starting this new little cold war with Russia. Russia must be prevailed upon not to veto United Nations sanctions on Iran if there is to be any hope of getting a strong resolution. Russia is also an asset in the fight against terrorism. Russia's huge stockpile of nuclear weapons is never very far from American strategic thinking.

A recent report of a bipartisan task force assembled by the Council on Foreign Relations said that US-Russian relations are headed in the wrong direction. The task force, saying that Putin is presiding over a rollback of Russian democracy, recommends what it calls a "de facto revival of the group of seven" - that is, a separate meeting without Russia.

That idea is not likely to sit well with the Russian hosts in St. Petersburg. One way or another, relations with Russia seem headed for trouble.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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