Cheney to `stiffen the spine' of Georgia, Ukraine
He will reassure them that the U.S. backs their pro-West aspirations
Vice President Dick Cheney will reassure three former Soviet republics that the U.S. backs their pro-West aspirations in the highest-level American visit since last month`s war between Russia and Georgia, according to Bloomberg.On his first trip to the region, Cheney departs today for Azerbaijan and Georgia, which are crucial to the westward flow of energy via a corridor that bypasses Russia. He also will stop in Ukraine, whose desire to join NATO is opposed by Russia.
``Cheney`s mission is to stiffen the spine`` of the countries` leaders, said Mark Parris, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey who also served as a diplomat in Moscow. ``They`ll want to know U.S. plans, and what`s available, to ensure that Russia isn`t able to throw its weight around more broadly in the region.``
Joining condemnations by President George W. Bush and other European Union leaders, Cheney called Russia`s invasion of Georgia an ``unjustified assault`` on Aug. 27.
Russian troops attacked to counter Georgia`s attempt to retake the pro-Moscow separatist region of South Ossetia by force on Aug. 7. Russia routed Georgia in a five-day war, occupied a third of it for days more, left behind peacekeepers to protect South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway, and then recognized their independence over the West`s objections.
``The overriding priority, especially in Baku, Tbilisi and Kiev, will be the same: a clear and simple message that the U.S. has a deep and abiding interest in the well-being and security in this part of the world,`` John Hannah, Cheney`s national security adviser, told reporters last week. The journey, partly planned before the war, ``has clearly taken on increased importance.``
After meeting with the three presidents -- Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine, Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia -- Cheney will end his trip in Italy with a speech on security and meetings with Italian leaders.
Cheney`s trip starts a day after EU leaders met in Brussels and suspended trade talks with Russia without imposing tougher sanctions, signaling their limited appetite for confronting it too aggressively. NATO has halted cooperation exercises with Russia. The U.S. military has shipped humanitarian war-relief supplies to Georgia and is considering scrapping a planned nuclear cooperation deal with Russia.
``We welcome the European Union`s decisions on Georgia today,`` White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, holder of the EU`s six-month presidency, will visit Russia Sept. 8 to demand that Russia pull back behind the pre-war lines.
The EU summit ``demonstrates that Europe and the U.S. are united in standing firm behind Georgia`s territorial integrity, sovereignty and reconstruction,`` Perino said.
Bush is awaiting Cheney`s findings before deciding on what else, if anything, to do, Perino said Aug. 28. ``This is not something we`re rushing into,`` she said.
U.S. officials have expressed concern that Russia may pose a threat to Ukraine, which is a conduit for Russian natural gas exports to other European countries. Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine in a 2006 dispute over a price increase, creating shortages in Hungary and Italy.
Putin on Ukraine
Russia`s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, on Aug. 29 rejected suggestions that it may target Ukraine, saying his country has ``long recognized`` its neighbor`s borders, and said Russia will honor energy-export contracts.
Yushchenko has supported Georgia in its conflict with Russia, joining leaders of Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia in a solidarity rally in Tbilisi on Aug. 14. He will press Cheney for ``additional support from the U.S.`` as Ukraine seeks to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said Olexiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the Kiev-Mohyla Academy in Kiev.
Cheney`s first stop, Azerbaijan, is the hub for the development of Caspian Sea oilfields. Its capital, Baku, is the starting point for a U.S.-backed pipeline that ships crude to a Turkish Mediterranean port via Georgia. The U.S. is also supporting the development of gas pipelines to connect Central Asian producers with European countries, skirting Russia.
``Cheney understands energy,`` and ``this is as much about the transportation corridors between East and West as it is about the military threat,`` said Ariel Cohen, an expert on Russia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Cheney was chairman of Halliburton Co., the Houston-based energy-services company, from 1995 to 2000, after serving as defense secretary during the 1991 war to evict invading Iraqi forces from Kuwait and its oilfields.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline carries about 850,000 barrels of crude a day -- as much as 1.5 percent of global oil flows, said Parris, now at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
President Aliyev said after a visit from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Aug. 21 that the Georgia-Russia conflict showed that stability in the region is ``flimsy,`` according to Azerbaijan`s state-run news service. Aliyev said he seeks friendly relations with Russia and Georgia and wants their dispute resolved through negotiations that would protect his country`s energy exports.
``The Russians have steadily strengthened their position on a whole range of strategic energy questions and put countries like Turkey and Azerbaijan under pressure to work with them, or at least not work against them,`` as the Russian energy giant OAO Gazprom expands, Parris said.