Cheney visit to Georgia keeps pressure on Russia

President George W. Bush is dispatching Vice President Dick Cheney to Georgia, the latest burst of political support for an ally reeling from war with Russia.

The White House announced Cheney's trip Monday as the administration blasted Russia anew for failing to fully honor a cease-fire deal with Georgia, a former Soviet republic. The administration also chided Russian lawmakers for endorsing independence of Georgia's two breakaway regions, saying its Cold War foe has no authority to make that decision on its own.

Cheney is heading abroad on Sept. 2 for stops in three former Soviet Republics — Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine — plus Italy.

"The vice president will be delivering the word of America's support," White House spokesman Tony Fratto.

Indeed, Cheney's presence in the war zone is a clear sign to Russia of the U.S. resolve behind Georgia after the small country was pummeled by a Russian military response. The vice president is the top-ranking U.S. official to visit Georgia since war erupted on Aug. 7.

Even before those hostilities began, Cheney's trip to Italy, Georgia and Azerbaijan was in the works.

The vice president has no plans to visit Russia and speak directly with leaders there.

Cheney's trip is the latest in a flurry of activity, including an earlier Georgia trip by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, that is meant to signal a strong U.S. position.

The White House also announced Monday that the U.S. is sending an interagency delegation to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, to assess the country's vast reconstruction needs.

Catching much of the world off guard, war erupted this month as Georgia launched an artillery barrage targeting the separatist province of South Ossetia. Russian forces repelled the offensive and responded with tremendous force, attacking deep into Georgia.

Yet questions remain about what actions, if any, the U.S. will take against Russia. NATO foreign ministers suspended their formal contacts with Russia as punishment. But the NATO allies, bowing to pressure from European nations that depend heavily on Russia for energy, stopped short of more severe penalties being pushed by the United States.

The Pentagon has ruled out a military response. Cheney's office has used tough rhetoric, saying that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered."

"It hasn't gone unanswered. In fact, I'd say it's been loudly answered," Fratto said Monday from Crawford, Texas, where Bush is on vacation at his ranch.

"I don't think there's any question that Russia's reputation has suffered since it took these disproportionate military steps in Georgia," Fratto said.

As for specific consequences, The White House is reviewing its "entire relationship" with Russia, Fratto said, but focusing now on how to support Georgia's recovery.

Meanwhile, Russia's parliament voted unanimously Monday to urge the country's president to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway region. The U.S. government swiftly rejected the move.

Fratto said the status of the two regions is "not a matter for any one country to decide," but rather a topic for negotiation among the parties through the United Nations.

Cheney will hold talks in Georgia with President Mikhail Saakashvili, and will meet with the respective presidents of the other countries he is visiting.

Russia pulled the bulk of its troops and tanks out of Georgia on Friday under a cease-fire brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but built up its forces in and around South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It also left military posts inside Georgia proper.

"There's no question that Russia hasn't lived up to the cease-fire agreement," Fratto said, a point Russia fiercely disputes. The White House says the presence of large numbers of Russian troops and checkpoints are signs that Russia remains in violation.

Cheney's trip was originally driven by his plans to attend the Ambrosetti forum in Italy, an annual meeting of world leaders. Ukraine was added recently to the agenda, White House officials said.

Ukraine, like Georgia, has angered Moscow by seeking closer ties with the West. While siding with Georgia, Ukrainian officials have acknowledged that Moscow's quick military victory exposed their nation's own vulnerability.

[Source: Associated Press, The Herald Tribune International, Crawford, Texas, 25Aug08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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