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US-Russia ties jolted by crisis in Georgia

Georgia sent 1,000 troops into Pankisi Gorge Sunday.

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The free hand given to Russia to prosecute its own "war on terrorism" – an ongoing fight against Chechen separatists – is now being slapped by Washington.

Russia received a stinging rebuke from the White House over the weekend, after Russian planes on Friday reportedly bombed targets some 20 miles inside the border of its southern neighbor Georgia. Sunday, a force of 1,000 Georgian Interior Ministry troops began an anticriminal, antiterror operation in the volatile Pankisi Gorge, according to wire reports. The gorge is a suspected refuge for Islamic militants.

Analysts say the American scolding is the sign of deeper unease with a growing number of Russian policies.

The crisis in Georgia – where US Special Operations units are now training Georgian forces – is the latest in a recent string of moves by Russia that fly in the face of American strategy. They include deepening friendships and military deals with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea – all members of what George W. Bush calls an "axis of evil" – as well as China.

"There are a whole array of issues where the US and Russia are at loggerheads, from the Caucasus to the Yellow Sea," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst in Moscow. "If [Russian President] Vladimir Putin will not intervene to change this pattern of policies, Russian-American close cooperation may be at an end."

Mr. Putin has turned Russia into a newfound friend of Washington, fostering warm personal ties with Mr. Bush, and bringing Russia closer to Europe and to NATO. But he has also struggled against many members of Russia's political and military establishments to shift Russia toward the West.

One recent bright spot in US-Russia relations: Before dawn last Thursday, US, Russian, and Yugoslav officials cooperated secretly to remove enough vulnerable, weapons-grade nuclear material to make 2 1/2 nuclear bombs from a research reactor near Belgrade. It was flown to a secure facility in Russia to be blended down.

Friendship at a crossroads

While that operation attests to the power of US-Russia partnership, other concerns are emerging.

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