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Former Soviet Repoublics at Odds over Economic, Military Resources

By Doyle McManus
and Douglas Jehl

Los Angeles Times

Washington

Bush administration officials said Thursday that it is increasingly clear that the 2-month-old Commonwealth of Independent States is failing to function, a failure that completes the transformation of the old Soviet Union into independent nations with little in common beyond an agreement on control of nuclear weapons.

The widening division among the new nations comes as a disappointment for the administration, which had hoped that the Commonwealth -- forged by a treaty among 11 of the former republics in December -- could become a vehicle for economic, political and military cooperation.

Instead, most of the former Soviet republics are talking about creating their own national armies and several are resisting cooperation with Russia's economic reforms.

Administration officials said they are still urging officials in Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and other fractious republics to cooperate with each other. But they no longer expect much beyond preservation of the agreement that places the old Soviet nuclear forces under joint control.

"There's no real Commonwealth in any functioning sense in terms of economic policy,'' one senior official said. "It isn't really there.''

CIA Director Robert M. Gates told the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week that, "We see the potential for conflict (among the republics) as rising... . Although republic leaders recognize the need to cooperate, they continue to have fundamental differences over the sharing of power and resources.''

As a result, the administration has begun adjusting its policies to deal separately with 12 republics moving in different economic and political directions -- and to try to defuse conflicts among them.

The latest sign of the new realities came in a telephone call from President Bush to Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk Thursday morning. Bush, an official said, indicated for the first time that he was willing to let Ukraine repay its share of Soviet foreign debt separately from the rest of the Commonwealth, a key step toward economic secession.

Previously, the United States had urged Ukraine to join with Russia and other republics to handle the debt -- partly because the administration wanted to promote the use of a single currency and central Commonwealth bank. But Ukraine insisted on replacing the Soviet ruble with its own currency.

In the 20-minute call, Kravchuk also told Bush that he would accept an American invitation for an official visit to Washington beginning May 6, another sign of the improved relationship between the two nations.

On military issues, the administration is adjusting to a future in which most of the former Soviet republics have their own armies -- another process launched by Ukraine.

As a result, U.S. strategic planners are now focusing on building a new, friendly relationship with Russia, which controls most of the conventional and nuclear forces. In a formal statement at a congressional hearing this week, Secretary of State James A. Baker III pointed to "a new security partnership between Russia and America.'' He did not mention the Commonwealth.

The outlook for the next few years is complicated because hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russian troops are still stationed in non-Russian republics. As republics establish their own armies and end the Commonwealth's conventional military role, they must agree on who inherits troops and equipment -- a process that concerns U.S. officials.