MOSCOW -- The Kremlin signaled a fundamental foreign policy shift yesterday, acknowledging that two former Soviet republics, Ukraine and Georgia, are no longer part of the Russian orbit.
Days before a potentially tense meeting between Kremlin chief Vladimir V. Putin and President Bush, the Russian foreign minister said in an interview broadcast yesterday that Moscow views the two former republics ''as absolutely sovereign, absolutely equal states in the new geopolitical architecture."
The policy change was sure to be welcomed by the Bush White House, given that Russia had angrily accused the United States of being involved in recent political turmoil in both countries that produced new, Western-leaning governments.
In a clear step away from confrontation, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov now said the Kremlin only required openness from the former republics and other countries as they formulate policy and develop relations.
''The main thing is that this process should be transparent, should strengthen existing good relations, and should not be aimed against any other country," Lavrov said on state-run RTR television.
Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has struggled to maintain influence with the former republics, now independent countries, that ringed the onetime communist superpower.
In the intervening years, the Kremlin has relied on a foreign policy concept under which the former republics were known as the ''near abroad," which signaled that Russia did not view them as absolutely sovereign.
The policy began unraveling as the three Baltic nations -- Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia -- quickly aligned themselves with the West, but the other former republics largely were treated by Moscow as if the Kremlin still had a say.
There was a further crack in 2003 when the ''Rose Revolution" in Georgia propelled the reformist president, Mikhail Saakashvili, to power and brought down his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, who was Soviet foreign minister before the collapse.
Tensions continued in the Caucasus mountain country, however, because of Moscow's perceived backing of ethnic separatist movements that threatened to split the already tiny country into smaller pieces. A recent visit to Tiblisi by Lavrov did little to smooth differences, including disputes over the status of two Russian bases in Georgia and the two countries' shared border.
After the visit, Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili of Georgia said the two countries' relations were ''at a very low point."
Lavrov agreed: ''The visit was not an easy one," he said.
Yesterday's policy declaration could improve Georgian ties, and the remarks were certain to be welcomed in Ukraine, where Lavrov was to arrive for fence-mending meetings today. Moscow was closely aligned with and publicly favored the candidacy of Viktor Yanukovych in tumultuous elections last year that put reformist and Western-leaning Viktor Yuschenko in power.
In a statement released Friday, Alexander Yakovenko, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said Moscow saw ''great significance" in Lavrov's visit to Kiev, which is intended to ''continue the active political dialogue aimed at strengthening strategic partnership between us."
Among the issues to be discussed during Lavrov's meetings with his Ukrainian counterpart, Borys Tarasiuk, will be a free-trade zone between the two countries. .
Yakovenko also said Russia and Ukraine ''together make a significant contribution to reinforcing the energy security of Europe." Russia is Europe's largest single supplier of natural gas, most of which is transported via Ukrainian pipelines.