Ukraine`s push for NATO membership will top the agenda for talks Friday between Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Vice President Dick Cheney — on a tour of three ex-Soviet republics that are alarmed about Russian assertiveness, according to The Associated Press.

Cheney was also to meet with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose feuding with Yushchenko turned into open political turmoil this week and put Ukraine`s government on the verge of collapse.

Cheney`s trip was intended as a signal that the United States will continue cultivating close ties with Ukraine and its neighbors even after Russia showed it was willing to use military force against countries along its border — as in last month`s war in Georgia.

Before Ukraine, Cheney visited oil-rich Azerbaijan and then Georgia, where Russia has recognized the independence of two breakaway regions: South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

There are concerns the Kremlin might next seek to squeeze Ukraine as it tries to reclaim dominance in the former Soviet Union. The strategically located country of 46 million has pipelines that carry Russian gas to European consumers and a Black Sea port that is home to a key Russian naval base.

Yushchenko has pushed strongly for closer ties with the European Union and NATO. That in turn has upset the country`s large Russian-speaking minority, who want deeper relations with Moscow.

On Thursday, Cheney told Georgia`s leaders that the United States strongly backed its efforts to join NATO and he is expected to say the same to Ukrainian officials.

"After the events in Georgia, Ukraine cannot feel safe and protected without being part of an international security system, which NATO is," Yushchenko`s office said in a statement released ahead of the talks.

"The talks (will be) dedicated to the situation that has developed as a result of the conflict and to ways toward overcoming potential threats to international security, stability and to the whole system of international law and order," the statement said.

The two sides "condemn the decision of Russia to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, urging Moscow to keep up its international obligations," the statement said.

Angry Russian officials have repeatedly said U.S. military aid was instrumental in emboldening Georgia to try to retake South Ossetia by force on Aug. 7. The attack sparked five days of fighting and resulted in Russian forces driving into South Ossetia and on into Georgia.

Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia`s lower house of parliament, accused Cheney of trying to forge an "anti-Russian axis."

"It`s Cheney who was behind all recent events on the former Soviet turf," Kosachyov said Thursday.

The United States and European Union say Russia has failed to meet its obligations under an EU-brokered cease-fire deal. Moscow denies that.

Yushchenko has objected to Russia using its ships stationed in the Ukrainian base in the war, thus dragging Ukraine into the conflict. His move has angered Moscow and further strained relations which were already tense over energy disputes and the Russian navy presence in Ukraine.

Cheney`s visit comes at an awkward time for Yushchenko. The governing coalition, made up of his party and Tymoshenko`s, has collapsed, dashing hopes for quick progress and integration with the European Union.

Yushchenko and Tymoshenko have turned into bitter rivals before the 2010 presidential election, in which they are likely to compete against each other, blocking each other`s policies and stalling much-needed reform.

The Associated Press