WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vice President Dick Cheney, one of Moscow’s harshest critics, will go to Georgia and other former Soviet states this week to reinforce U.S. support for allies in Russia’s backyard.
Cheney leaves on Tuesday for Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine, his first visit to those countries as vice president. He then ends his weeklong trip in Italy.
The aim, analysts said, is to build morale and offer reassurance of U.S. commitment to the region after Russia crushed Georgia’s military and declared two of its rebel regions as independent states.
“From the perspective of sending a signal to Moscow, yes, they want to send the hard-liner out to the region,” said Daniel Benjamin, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.
Benjamin said the Bush administration wants to ensure “no one goes weak in the knees in the region.”
Tensions flared when Georgia tried on August 7-8 to retake the pro-Russian province of South Ossetia by force, prompting an overwhelming counter-attack from Moscow. Russian forces went into South Ossetia and a second separatist area, Abkhazia, and then moved into Georgia proper.
Relations between the United States and Russia have since deteriorated to a low not seen since the Cold War. Moscow has ignored threats and calls from the West to withdraw.
Russia also has grievances, including outrage at U.S. plans to build a missile defense system in eastern Europe and concerns about NATO expansion close to its borders.
Georgia and Ukraine, both on Cheney’s tour, want to join the security alliance.
Georgia and others in the region need to know “that we are not going anywhere and that we’re going to continue to build our relationships with these countries,” a senior U.S. administration official said.
Cheney’s trip comes as the United States considers what few options it has to influence Russian behavior.
The Bush administration may scrap a civil nuclear deal agreed upon with Moscow and implement sanctions, but the U.S. business community, with a multibillion-dollar link to Russia, has urged caution.
The vice president will visit Tbilisi as the U.S. military studies how to rebuild Georgia’s military without provoking a Russian response.
The last senior Bush administration official to visit Georgia was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice more than two weeks ago, when military hostilities were active and a French-brokered ceasefire agreement was being hammered out.
Cheney’s harsh rhetoric on Russia has resurfaced during this crisis. Last week he called Moscow’s actions in Georgia an “unjustified assault” and during the first days of the conflict told Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili: “Russian aggression must not go unanswered.”
In a 2006 speech in Vilnius, Cheney created a stir by sharply criticizing Russia as backsliding on democracy and using its energy supplies as “tools of intimidation or blackmail” against its neighbors.
“Mr. Cheney has certainly been associated with the people who are hardest on the Russians,” said James Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and now director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Energy will be on the agenda again, with Azerbaijan and Georgia important to Western energy strategies as part of a transportation route from the Caspian Sea to Europe that bypasses Russia.
Russia, the world’s second largest oil producer, has seen its economic fortunes rise with the rising price of oil, which has reinvigorated its identity as a major world power.
Editing by Kristin Roberts and Todd Eastham