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Clinton visiting former Soviet states to reassert US interests in Russia's neighborhood

On the heels of a sensational Russian spy scandal, Hillary Rodham Clinton is making her first visit as secretary of state to four post-Soviet states, each with a direct stake in the Obama administration's campaign to "reset" relations with its former Cold War foe.

Clinton was headed Thursday to Ukraine, to be followed by stops in the south Caucasus states of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia — all once part of the Soviet Union. She also is scheduled to visit Poland, a NATO ally whose ties to Moscow have been marked by tensions throughout history.

Clinton was delaying her departure slightly in order to bid farewell Thursday to Sen. Robert C. Byrd in the Senate chamber, where he will lie in state before being flown to West Virginia for a memorial service.

Clinton's trip was planned long before the Justice Department on Monday announced it had arrested 10 people fingered as covert intelligence agents of the Russian government. The case underscores lingering tensions with Russia at a time when the Obama administration is bragging about the diplomatic payoff from making a fresh start with Moscow 18 months ago.

Even trickier than the spy allegations, however, are the politics of U.S. relations with former Soviet republics like Georgia, which is still smarting from Russia's armed invasion in August 2008.

The Obama administration is trying to strike a balance between pressing the Russians to withdraw their forces from the breakaway Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and convincing the Georgian government that building up its military is not the right solution.

"We don't think that arms sales and military equipment is the path to the situation in Georgia that we're trying to get to," said Philip Gordon, the State Department's top Russia policy official. The best route for Georgia, he said, is to build a stronger, more prosperous democracy.

At the center of the Russia-Georgia tensions is an effort by Moscow to reassert its influence in the region, to preserve what President Dmitry Medvedev calls a Russian zone of "privileged interest." The U.S. rejects the notion of a Russian sphere of influence.

In taking a friendlier approach to Russia, the Obama administration claims the payoff has been substantial. It cites the recently completed New START nuclear arms reduction treaty as well as Russia's acceptance of a U.N. Security Council resolution on sanctions against Iran.

Critics, however, say the administration has exaggerated its achievements.

David J. Kramer, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said recently that the administration is paying too much attention to Moscow and too little to other countries in the region. In so doing, the administration unwisely has given the Russians the impression that improving relations means more to Washington than to Moscow, he said.

"It leads to an overselling of successes," Kramer said.

At her first stop, in Kiev on Friday, Clinton is to meet with Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. His more pro-Western predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, had broken ties with Russia to seek membership in the European Union and NATO, in both cases without success.

Clinton also planned to meet separately with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who lost the February presidential election to Yanukovych and remains his political enemy.

In Poland, Clinton is to deliver a speech Saturday at an international gathering marking the 10th anniversary of the Community of Democracies, an organization founded in 2000 to promote democracy globally.

Relations between Russia and Poland have warmed following an April 10 plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and 94 others on a flight to visit the Katyn forest in western Russia. Katyn was the site of a 1940 massacre of Polish officers and intellectuals that looms large in Polish memory.

Clinton's stop in Azerbaijan will accelerate efforts by the Obama administration to strengthen relations. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in June became the highest-ranking administration official to visit Azerbaijan; he delivered a letter from President Barack Obama thanking President Ilham Aliyev for allowing the U.S. to move troops and supplies through his airspace en route to Afghanistan.

Azerbaijan also is part of an overland supply chain that is a critical alternative to the primary land route to Afghanistan through Pakistan. About one-quarter of all war goods comes through the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation.

Aliyev has complained that he gets too little attention from Washington and that U.S. officials have not done enough to resolve a festering conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In Yerevan on Sunday, Clinton will meet with Armenian President Serzh Sargsian and other government officials.

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