A U.S. Navy ship loaded with humanitarian aid steamed through the Dardanelles en route to Georgia on Wednesday, as the Bush administration prepared to roll out a $1 billion economic aid package for the former Soviet republic.
In Azerbaijan, Vice President Dick Cheney said the United States had a “deep and abiding interest” in the region’s stability. It was the first stop on a tour of three ex-Soviet republics that are wary of Russia’s intentions after its war with Georgia last month.
The multiyear proposal calls for spending about half of the money in the Bush administration's remaining five months in office and recommending that the incoming president keep funding the project when he takes over in January, a senior U.S. official said.
The White House and State Department plan to jointly announce the aid package later Wednesday. It follows an assessment mission to Georgia by Reuben Jeffrey, a senior U.S. diplomat, the official told the AP.
Jeffrey has recommended that assistance be sped to Georgia to help rebuild its economy and infrastructure that was destroyed by Russian tanks, troops and airstrikes, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.
Russia was watching Cheney’s trip with suspicion, 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, who was due to arrive in Georgia on Thursday, 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 was 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.
Also in tandem with Bush, the International Monetary Fund announced it has agreed to lend Georgia $750 million for economic recovery.
International Monetary Fund promises millions
The administration is delaying an announcement on some sort of punishment of Russia for its actions against Georgia and its refusal thus far to comply with a French-brokered cease-fire. However, the decision to shower tiny Georgia with such substantial aid and have Cheney talk about it in Moscow's backyard will likely be seen by the Kremlin as highly provocative, if not a punitive measure in and of itself.
The dollar total is half the $2 billion a year the U.S. gives Israel, its largest aid recipient. But the sizable amount still shows the strategic importance the U.S. places on both supporting Saakashvili's Western-leaning government and countering the desire by a newly resurgent and energy-rich Moscow for greater regional influence.
Cheney made a point in Azerbaijan of saying that Washington has "a deep and abiding interest" in the region's stability.
That said, the U.S. has found during this conflict that it has little leverage with Russia. Moscow has drawn condemnations from the United States and Europe, but little else.
Moscow severs diplomatic ties
The Russian consul in Georgia, meanwhile, said Russia closed its embassy there and has halted consular operations after Georgia severed diplomatic ties following last month's war.
The diplomatic suspension means no new applications for Russian entry visas will be accepted, a blow to Georgians who have relatives in Russia or other ties there. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians live in Russia, many with Russian citizenship.
"A break-off of diplomatic ties is an action that has a price," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said in Moscow. He said the ministry is considering other measures.
The diplomatic break follows a war between Georgia and Russia in August and Moscow's recognition of two separatist Georgia regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as independent nations. The conflict has brought tensions between Moscow and the West to their highest level since the 1991 end of the Soviet Union.
"Now I cannot get to Russia to see my wife," Vakhtang Tsereteli, a Georgian whose wife is a Russian citizen and lives in Moscow, said outside the consulate Wednesday. "I don't know what to do."
Questions from the Kremlin
The United States has already sent two military ships bearing aid to Georgia, and the USS Mount Whitney steamed through the Dardanelles early Wednesday and was expected to pass through the Bosporus later in the day. The two Turkish-controlled straits link the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.
One of the other U.S. ships, the USS McFaul, sailed back through the straits toward the Mediterranean late Monday.
"We don't understand what American ships are doing on the Georgian shores," Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Tuesday. "The second question is why the humanitarian aid is being delivered on naval vessels armed with the newest rocket systems."
Russia's reaction to NATO ships "will be calm, without any sort of hysteria. But of course, there will be an answer," Interfax quoted Putin as saying during a visit to Uzbekistan.
The U.S. has said the new money is aimed at helping impoverished Georgia, wedged between Russia and Turkey on the Black Sea, to rebuild infrastructure and boost an economy that has been growing but is nowhere near grown.
Georgia wants to rebuild and modernize its badly routed military. Though U.S. officials emphasized that none of the current package was for military aid, there was no effort to rule that out for the future.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that $570 million of the funds will be made available in the remaining months of the Bush administration, though Congress will have to approve $200 million of that. That also leaves a sizable portion — $430 million — up to the budgeting discretion of next year's Congress and the new president.
Short, intense conflict
The conflict erupted Aug. 7 after Georgia launched an assault to regain control of South Ossetia, a region supported by Russia. Russian forces swiftly repelled the offensive and drove deep into Georgia, whose staunchly pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili has angered Moscow by seeking NATO membership for the Caucasus nation.
Georgia straddles a major westward route for oil and gas from Central Asia and the Caspian Sea and has become the focus of a struggle for regional clout between Russia and the West.
On Wednesday, the European Parliament appealed to Russia to "honor all its commitments" to withdraw troops under a cease-fire agreement with Georgia.
The EU parliament also condemned alleged looting carried out by Russian forces and their separatist allies in Georgia, and criticized the use of cluster bombs by both sides in the conflict.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer will visit Georgia on Sept. 15-16. NATO declined to offer Georgia a road map for membership in April, partly because of concerns about angering Russia, but the alliance has assured Georgia it will eventually join.