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Cheney pays visit to Russia's neighbors

Image: Dick Cheney
Vice President Dick Cheney, center, is welcomed by an honor guard on arrival in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Wednesday. Cheney is to hold talks with President Ilham Aliev and senior Western oil executives.Osman Karimov / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Vice President Dick Cheney assured Azerbaijan on Wednesday of America's "abiding interest" in the region's stability. It was his first stop on a tour of three ex-Soviet republics that are wary of Russia's intentions after its war with Georgia last month.

Russia was warily eyeing the trip, and a top Russian security official accused Cheney of an ulterior motive: seeking to secure energy supplies in the South Caucasus in exchange for U.S. support.

Cheney met with U.S. Embassy officials and international oil executives before going to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev's residence on the Caspian Sea.

Cheney said the principle of territorial integrity has been endangered, noting that they were meeting "in the shadow of the Russian invasion of Georgia."

He added that President Bush had sent him with a clear message that the United States had a "deep and abiding interest" in the stability and security of countries in the region.

Azerbaijan has some of the largest oil and gas reserves in the former Soviet Union.

Aid for Georgia
The vice president later was to go to neighboring Georgia, where Washington is trying strengthen support for President Mikhail Saakashvili's U.S.-allied government, battered by last month's short war with Russia. The Bush administration was to announce a $1 billion economic aid package to help Georgia rebuild.

Cheney also planned to visit Ukraine, whose Western-leaning governing coalition has been plagued in infighting and growing wariness about Russia's intentions.

The head of Russia's powerful presidential Security Council criticized Cheney's planned tour, saying his real goal was to trade U.S. support for energy supplies in the region, and to make sure these countries had governments sympathetic to Washington.

"Cheney, during his visits to Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine, will try to instill in them confidence that they will receive support of the U.S., and (he) will do it in such a way that the U.S. will continue to wield influence on them," Nikolai Patrushev said during a visit to neighboring Armenia.

Russia's relations with Washington have become increasingly tense. Since the war in Georgia, Russia has asserted its right to exert clout over what it says is its historic sphere of influence — including many former Soviet republics.

Cold War revisited?
Russia has also objected strongly to U.S. plans to place components of a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic — both former Soviet satellites — as well as to Western support for Kosovo's independence from traditional ally Serbia.

Both Georgia and Ukraine have sought to pull themselves out from under Russia's shadow, pushing for membership in Western structures such as the European Union and NATO — much to Moscow's consternation.

Washington also has courted Azerbaijan, trying to ensure its oil wealth is exported to the West bypassing Russia. Many European capitals are wary of Russia and its vast oil and gas wealth after disruptions in European-bound Russian gas and oil shipments exported via other former Soviet republics.

The U.S. Embassy in Baku said in a statement that Cheney on Wednesday met with local representatives of British Petroleum and Chevron who briefed him on their "assessments of the energy situation in Azerbaijan and the broader Caspian region — especially in light of Russia's recent military actions in Georgia."

Azerbaijan's government has often been criticized by rights groups for heavy-handed treatment of independent media and opposition groups. International observers have said past elections were flawed.