Cheney's Trip to Caucasus Could Presage a Tougher Russia Policy

Vice President Dick Cheney will travel to Georgia and Ukraine this week in a trip that could help lay the groundwork for stiffer Western responses to last month's Russian incursion of Georgia.

The trip also illustrates important foreign-policy differences between Republican presidential candidate John McCain and his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, amid growing tensions between Washington and Moscow.

But whether Mr. Cheney will succeed in rallying the world to Georgia's cause -- or rallying U.S. voters to Sen. McCain's hawkish views on Russia -- remains uncertain.

Many U.S. allies in Western Europe remain wary of escalating tensions with a resurgent Russia, and thus could be reluctant to grant Georgia and Ukraine membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or kick Russia out of the Group of Eight leading nations, as Sen. McCain advocates. As a result, some friendly countries in the region are questioning the West's ability to protect Georgia and its neighbors.

And even though Sen. McCain appeared to get a bump in polls in the wake of the Russian-Georgian clashes, many U.S. voters already are weary of prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The public could conclude that more defense commitments aren't worth the potential price and side with Sen. Obama, whose responses to the Georgian crisis have emphasized diplomacy and consensus-building.

Mr. Cheney -- who was scheduled to depart Tuesday on a tour that also includes stops in Azerbaijan and Italy -- is expected to stress the depth of U.S. interests in Georgia and its neighbors, both for his overseas audience and his domestic one.

The Bush administration views the countries as bellwethers for the democracies growing up in Russia's shadow, and also as an indispensable corridor for shipping oil and gas from the Caspian basin -- a key to loosening Russia's grip on the region's energy supplies.

"I think the overriding priority...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 of this part of the world," John Hannah, Mr. Cheney's national-security adviser, said at a briefing last week.

As part of that effort, the vice president could have a highly visible public meeting with U.S. military personnel who have been distributing humanitarian supplies in Georgia.

In private meetings, the vice president also will be sounding out Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and other officials about how the U.S. and its allies could help strengthen economic and military capabilities. (See related articles on page A20).

In the past, the U.S. has been careful not to go too far in military assistance in the region. For example, the U.S. avoided training and equipping Georgian armored units, even as about 100 U.S. military personnel in Tbilisi prepared Georgian troops for service in Iraq. "It was part of a policy aimed at not being too provocative" with the Russians, says a U.S. military official with knowledge of the region. "We intentionally never touched their tanks or artillery or attacked aviation."

Now that policy might be ripe for reconsideration, many experts say. An initial step could be to increase the number of U.S. military trainers in Georgia, some say.

More broadly, Mr. Cheney also appears to be exploring possibilities for security arrangements for the region in light of Russia's new assertiveness.

"Russia's actions in recent weeks have clearly cast grave doubts on its intentions, its purposes, and its reliability as an international partner," a senior administration official said. "They merit and demand a unified response from the free world -- one that...provides a long-term strategic framework going forward that will responsibly protect and advance our interests and values in the months and years ahead."

Still, some experts say the apparent reluctance of European NATO powers such as Germany to get more deeply involved in protecting Eastern Europe could lead to the establishment of a new security framework with many former Soviet satellite countries such as Poland and the Baltic states, as well as with the U.S. In addition to helping protect new democracies, beefed-up security understandings could help convince investors that the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey energy corridor will remain viable for shipping oil and gas.

Part of Russia's intent in its incursion, some experts say, was to send a message to the energy-rich countries of the Caspian region that it can shut off the Georgia shipping route any time it likes.

But Bush administration officials say Russia's disproportionate response in Georgia shows that it would be willing to abuse its power as an energy supplier to Western Europe too. That makes the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey corridor even more important.

"This is a major factor for why we should be concerned about Georgian independence," over and above concerns about the Russian incursion, said John Bolton, Mr. Bush's former United Nations ambassador. "The fact that [Mr. Cheney] is going to both Azerbaijan and Georgia tells you that's very much on his mind. If you can't start [energy shipment] in Azerbaijan and put it through Georgia, there aren't many places you can send it to" other than Russia or Iran.

[Source: By John D. McKinnon, The Wall Street Journal, Washington, 02Sep08]

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