- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2008

KIEV | The United States is committed to Ukraine’s security and freedom, Vice President Dick Cheney pledged Friday, suggesting that Russia was posing a “threat of tyranny, economic blackmail and military invasion” to its neighbor.

During a closely watched trip to the ex-Soviet republic, Mr. Cheney also repeated that Ukraine would eventually join NATO, despite fierce resistance from Moscow.

The strong words from Mr. Cheney — the Bush administration’s most visible hawk — signaled that the United States was intent on cultivating closer ties with Ukraine and its neighbors even after Russia showed that it was willing to use military force against countries along its border.

“The United States has a deep and abiding interest in your well-being and security,” Mr. Cheney said after talks with President Viktor Yushchenko. “We believe in the right of men and women to live without threat of tyranny, economic blackmail and military invasion or intimidation.”

The show of support was important for Mr. Yushchenko’s Western-leaning government, which has become increasingly nervous about its relations with Moscow. Mr. Yushchenko has pushed strongly for closer ties with the European Union and NATO, upsetting both Ukraine’s large Russian-speaking minority and the Kremlin.

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.

The flagship of the U.S. Navy’s Mediterranean fleet on Friday anchored outside the key Georgian port of Poti, defiantly delivering humanitarian aid to the war-ravaged U.S. ally in a slap at Moscow.

The USS Mount Whitney was the first U.S. Navy ship to travel to Poti since the hostilities. The continued presence of hundreds of Russian soldiers in the port city has been a major point of friction between Russia and the West, which insists Moscow hasn’t honored a cease-fire deal to pull back to positions held before fighting broke out Aug. 7.

Out on the water, the Mount Whitney rode at anchor in choppy seas and a brisk wind as Navy officers escorted visitors around. One of Poti’s two Russian camps could be seen from the deck, the blue flag used by Russian peacekeeping forces flapping in the breeze.

Two U.S. ships had already come and gone from Georgia carrying humanitarian aid, but they anchored at Batumi, a smaller port to the south with no Russian military presence.

There are concerns that Russia’s effort to reclaim dominance in the former Soviet republics might lead the Kremlin to squeeze Ukraine. The strategically located country of 46 million has pipelines that carry Russian gas to European consumers and a Black Sea port that hosts a key Russian naval base.

Mr. Cheney also met separately with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose aides said they discussed security and energy issues. Mr. Cheney’s trip comes at a difficult time in Ukrainian politics: Mr. Yushchenko and Mrs. Tymoshenko are fighting bitterly, setting the government on the verge of collapse. The two are also fierce rivals for the 2010 presidential election.

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