WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vice President Dick Cheney in his first visit to Tbilisi next week will assure Georgia that the United States stands firmly with its ally which is reeling from a decisive military defeat at Russian hands.
Cheney leaves on September 2 on a trip to former Soviet states Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. Washington is assessing possible options to punish Russia for its military actions against Georgia.
“The overriding priority, especially in Baku, Tbilisi and Kiev, will be the same: a clear and simple message that the United States has a deep and abiding interest in the well-being and security in this part of the world,” John Hannah, national security adviser to Cheney, on Thursday told reporters.
While parts of the trip were under consideration before the Georgia crisis erupted this month, it “has clearly taken on increased importance in light of Russia’s recent military operations and its decision to recognize unilaterally the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” Hannah said.
Washington and Moscow have exchanged increasingly harsh words since Georgia tried to retake the separatist region of South Ossetia, prompting an overwhelming Russian counter-attack and invasion of Georgian territory.
Despite signing a French-brokered cease-fire, Russia has not withdrawn all troops from Georgia and has ignored demands from the West to do so. Moscow also recognized Georgia’s rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, drawing criticism from Washington and Europe.
Cheney, considered one of the administration’s harshest critics of Russia, will “reaffirm America’s unwavering commitment to continue strengthening our relations with these countries, not just today but for the long haul,” Hannah said.
The U.S. military has been delivering humanitarian aid to Georgia and the United States is assessing what kind of reconstruction help the country will require. U.S. officials are also studying how to rebuild Georgia’s battered military without provoking Russia.
Cheney’s visit to Tbilisi follows a trip by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice two weeks ago. She has not spoken with her Russian counterpart for about 10 days, the State Department said on Thursday.
“Russia’s actions in recent weeks have clearly cast grave doubts on its intentions, its purposes and its reliability as an international partner,” a senior administration official said on condition of anonymity.
“It is critically important at this time of uncertainty that we are consulting and coordinating very closely with our friends, especially those who literally are living in the shadow of Russia’s recent power play,” the official said.
Energy will also be on Cheney’s agenda. Two major pipelines cross Georgia while Azerbaijan exports oil and forms part of an oil transportation route from the Caspian Sea to Europe that bypasses Russia.
Russia is the world’s second largest oil producer.
“The level of confidence and trust that people have in Russia’s overall reliability has been put in serious question,” the official said. “That extends to energy and the issue of energy supplies.”
Editing by Alan Elsner