BAKU (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney was on his way to ex-Soviet Azerbaijan on Wednesday for the first leg of a trip to show that Washington stood by its allies in the region despite Russia's military intervention in Georgia.
As Cheney headed into a region Russia sees as its backyard, the Kremlin renewed its rhetorical attacks on Washington, accusing it of helping trigger the conflict by backing a pro-Western Georgian government bent on aggression.
Azerbaijan and Georgia are links in the chain of a Western-backed energy corridor that bypasses Russia, but which the West fears could be in jeopardy after the Kremlin last month sent troops and tanks deep into Georgian territory when Tbilisi tried to retake the separatist region of South Ossetia by force.
Cheney begins his week-long trip in Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea, then heads to Georgia and from there to Kiev for meetings with Ukraine's pro-Western government, which like Tbilisi is defying Moscow by seeking membership of NATO.
"These are the three countries that are the most directly affected by Russian pressure at the moment," said Janusz Bugajski, director of the New European Democracies Project at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"It's also sending a regional signal that America hasn't walked away from the region," he said of Cheney's trip, which will round off with a visit to Italy.
The Kremlin signaled it had little patience with Washington's role on its southern flank.
The United States, Georgia's closest big-power ally, has been fiercely critical of the Russian intervention there and is weighing options to punish Moscow, including scrapping a lucrative civil nuclear deal.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Tuesday it was time for Washington to re-evaluate its policy of supporting Georgia's staunchly pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili.
"Unfortunately, at a certain point they (the United States) gave Saakashvili carte blanche for any actions, including military. All that was translated into aggression," Medvedev told Italy's RAI television network in an interview.
Medvedev also described Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer with a Dutch wife, as a "political corpse" and said Moscow wanted nothing to do with him.
Those remarks contrasted with the more conciliatory language Medvedev used about the European Union, which on Monday threatened to suspend talks on a partnership pact but rejected sanctions on Russia, the EU's biggest energy supplier.
Russia sparked Western condemnation by sending its forces deep into Georgia and later recognizing the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.
Russia said it was morally obliged to attack Georgia to prevent what it called a genocide in the rebel region. Moscow says it is in full compliance with a French-brokered ceasefire.
In an effort to show Russia could still act as honest broker in separatist conflicts, Medvedev was expected to press for a peaceful settlement when he meets the head of a breakaway region in ex-Soviet Moldova on Wednesday.
Azerbaijan pumps nearly one million barrels a day of high quality crude -- equivalent to about one percent of the world's oil supplies -- through a BP-led pipeline which passes through Georgia and Turkey.
In a move likely to alarm the pipeline's Western backers, Azerbaijan has said it is re-routing some of its crude to a rival route through Russia, citing the conflict in Georgia as part of the reason.
"The importance of working with Azerbaijan to help its people develop their energy resources and reliably bring them to market is a very strong common interest, not just for the United States but for all the nations of Europe as well, as they plan for their own energy futures," a senior U.S. administration official told reporters last week.
Azerbaijan and Georgia are both pivotal in plans for the Nabucco pipeline, a project backed by Washington and Brussels to break Moscow's stranglehold on the transit of Central Asian gas by shipping it to Europe around Russia's southern flank.