In a meeting with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, US Vice-President Dick Cheney vowed to stand by Tbilisi against Russia. A fierce critic of the Kremlin, he called Russia's military push into Georgian territory an "illegitimate" act.
TBILISI - U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney vowed on Thursday to stand by Georgia in its showdown with Russia, calling Moscow's war against the ex-Soviet state an illegitimate act that cast doubt on its reliability.
Cheney, one of Moscow's harshest critics, is the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Georgia since Tbilisi tried to retake the breakaway region of South Ossetia by force in early August and was overwhelmed by the Russian military.
His typically strong comments may rile the Kremlin. Moscow has accused Washington of fuelling tensions by egging on Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer with close ties to President George W. Bush's administration.
"After your nation won its freedom in the Rose Revolution, America came to the aid of this courageous young democracy," Cheney said, referring to the peaceful revolution in 2003 which brought Saakashvili to power.
"We are doing so again as you work to overcome an invasion of your sovereign territory and an illegitimate, unilateral attempt to change your country's borders by force that has been universally condemned by the free world," Cheney said, standing next to Saakashvili on his first visit to Tbilisi.
Russian officials did not respond to the criticism from Cheney and have been dismissive about his presence in the region. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday he was not paying much attention to Cheney's trip.
Cheney, on a tour of U.S. allies in the region that started in Azerbaijan and continued in Ukraine late on Thursday, said Russia's actions had cast "grave doubt" on its intentions and reliability as a partner in the region and internationally.
Azerbaijan and Georgia are links in a Western-backed energy corridor, bypassing Russia, which the West fears could be in jeopardy following the Kremlin's military thrust into Georgia.
Moscow has said it acted in Georgia to prevent "genocide" when Tbilisi launched its military push into pro-Russian South Ossetia on Aug. 7. The Kremlin subsequently recognised South Ossetia and a second rebel region, Abkhazia, as independent states, drawing condemnation from Washington and Europe.
Only Nicaragua has followed Moscow's example in recognising the two provinces. In a setback for Russia, its ex-Soviet security allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation stopped short of doing so on Thursday, although they did blame Georgia for the conflict.
Russia has kept troops in a "buffer zone" on Georgian territory, a move the United States and European Union say violates a French-brokered peace plan. Moscow denies that and says the troops are needed to provide security.
However, Moscow says it will withdraw from the buffer zone once a mechanism for deploying international monitors is agreed and has invited EU police to participate.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said after talks with Lavrov in Moscow that it was in Europe's interests "that the international mission assumes full control of the security zone as quickly as possible".
Military monitors from the OSCE, a pan-European security body, gained brief access to the buffer zone adjacent to South Ossetia on Thursday for the first time since the conflict, a Reuters reporter at the scene said.
Cheney reiterated support for Georgia's bid to join NATO, calling it a defensive alliance that posed no threat to Russia.
He said he had assured Saakashvili in one-on-one talks that lasted over an hour of the U.S. commitment to keeping the rebel regions within Georgia.
Cheney urged a peaceful resolution of the dispute, saying long-term regional security was at stake.
After the conflict erupted, Cheney said that Russian actions would not go unanswered. But Washington has yet to announce any sanctions such as scrapping a lucrative civilian nuclear deal.
On Wednesday Washington announced aid of more than $1 billion to help Georgia rebuild housing, transportation and other infrastructure destroyed in its five-day war with Russia.
The United States is also sending relief supplies aboard the Mount Whitney, a sophisticated command warship of the U.S. Sixth Fleet. It could arrive off Georgia as early as Friday.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has accused Washington of delivering weapons to Georgia by sea -- an accusation rejected by the White House as ridiculous.
Cheney later arrived in Ukraine, like Georgia an ex-Soviet country with NATO ambitions that is traversing turbulent times.
President Viktor Yushchenko, with whom Cheney was due to dine, announced on Wednesday that Kiev's coalition government had collapsed and threatened to call a snap parliamentary vote.
It would be the third election in as many years since the 2004 Orange Revolution swept Yushchenko to power on a promise of greater integration with the West.
Date created : 2008-09-04