At the close of the Gleneagles Summit this week, Russia will take over leadership of the Group of Eight, the "super club" of countries that in theory are driving the world economy and political system. Even prior to Moscow's ascension, that notion had been coming in for increasing derision. What about India and China? commentators have been asking. And why should Canada, hardly an international powerhouse, get a seat at the table?

These critical comments have only grown louder at the fact that Moscow will be in the lead for 2006. Russia has been sliding backward in economic reform and democratic development. Its president is consolidating power, its security services are in the ascendant, and its own businessmen are afraid to invest in its future. How can Russia, in these circumstances, lead the G8 through a successful year? Is it not even possible that Russia's leadership of the group will undermine the G8 so that its future will be doomed?

Russia, it must be noted, is not responsible for all of the G8's problems. Trans-Atlantic tension was the serious disease two years ago, and today quarrels among European Union leaders over their abortive attempts to adopt a constitution and a budget are causing the biggest problems. Under these circumstances, the G8 will unlikely have the necessary cohesion and leadership to change. But that is no reason to shut down the group or to forget about its original goal: to provide top-level, focused and committed leadership to resolve issues that threaten the world's progress and security.

So, given Russia's own serious limitations, what can the Kremlin do in the coming year to ensure that the G8 agenda is advanced? We can forget about economic and democratic progress. Russia simply has neither the authority and legitimacy to lead in these areas, nor the international experience, nor the desire. Security is another matter, however, particularly in the urgent fight against nuclear terrorism.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has confronted the threat that the vast Soviet nuclear arsenal -- tens of thousands of warheads and over 1,000 tons of fissile material -- would fall prey to terrorists or rogue leaders intent on acquiring the illicit means to attack countries that they consider to be their enemies. The G8 recognized this threat in 2002 when it formed the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. Russia was its first focus and, at the same time, a founding member.

Over the past three years, Russia has opened its doors to the Global Partnership, making it possible to accelerate the destruction of nuclear attack submarines, speed up the protection of nuclear warheads and materials, and ensure that the vast Soviet stockpiles of chemical weapons are at last being destroyed. Russia is a leader in this effort, despite the fact that it is also an aid recipient. It is working to ensure better management of the projects and to put its own resources on the table.

Beyond the Global Partnership, Russia has taken a surprising international lead on several issues of nuclear security and nonproliferation. For example, the fuel deal that the Federal Atomic Energy Agency has worked out with Iran's Atomic Energy Agency is a first step toward efforts to develop an international system of guaranteed nuclear fuel services. U.S. President George W. Bush argued in an important speech in February 2004 that most countries developing nuclear power should depend on internationally guaranteed supplies of fuel rather than developing their own means to produce fuel and reprocess it.

This is precisely the concern that the international community has had about Iran's efforts to develop fuel enrichment facilities, which has led to serious disagreement with the Tehran government and to threats to refer it to the UN Security Council. Amid this controversy, Russia had established a fuel services deal with Iran, essentially a pilot project for the very international system that Bush proposed.

Another example is the return of highly enriched uranium to safekeeping. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and United States competed to establish research reactors in countries around the world, supplying them with highly enriched uranium fuel, or HEU, that could be used in experiments or to produce medical isotopes -- at the time, very worthy peaceful uses of the atom. In the ensuing years, however, many of these research reactors have become isolated in unstable states or, in some cases, have ended up in conflict zones, where their HEU -- the most convenient material for an amateur bomb-maker -- could fall into the hands of a nuclear terrorist.

Russia and the United States have begun in recent years to redress this dangerous Cold War legacy. Over the past few years, Russia was instrumental in removing nuclear material from the Vinca reactor site in the former Yugoslavia, and from Latvia and Romania. Moscow is currently working with Uzbekistan, the site of recent unrest, to remove HEU from the research reactor in Tashkent.

In each of these cases, Russia has been an important international leader. And so it could be for the G8. If Russia chooses to use its G8 leadership to advance the fight against nuclear terrorism and proliferation, then some important progress can be achieved in the coming year. For one thing, Russia should be able to clear away some of the bureaucratic brushwork that continues to plague implementation of the programs. More importantly, however, it will be able to set the pace and direction of the programs for years to come. Some important goals should be accelerating the pace of HEU "clean-out" from research reactors in vulnerable sites throughout the world. The current 10-year deadline could be cut to four if the Russians pushed for it. This would speed the efforts to keep easy bomb-making material out of the hands of terrorists. Next, it is crucial to establish a model for an international fuel-services program, drawing on the experience of Russia's "pilot project" with Iran. This should include mechanisms for incorporating other international fuel providers into the equation, as well as providing critical assurances, in the form of transparency and other safeguards, to the international community. Finally, the G8 members could develop a clear agenda for action if the six-party talks ever "get to yes" with North Korea. Russia was involved in the early stages of the North Korean program and trained North Korean scientists. Thus it is well-positioned to think in advance about how to work with North Korea on shutting down its nuclear program, decommissioning its sites and engaging its nuclear scientists.

The G8 has many problems to deal with, including questions about its membership and legitimacy at a time when the world is a much different place than when it was created. The G8's problems, however, do not doom Russia to a failed leadership year any more than do Russia's failings as a modern state. If the Kremlin adopts an agenda of critical interest to the whole international community -- nuclear security and the fight against nuclear terrorism --it has a strong potential to succeed.

Rose Gottemoeller is a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 1999-2000, she was the U.S. deputy undersecretary of energy responsible for nonproliferation cooperation with Russia. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.