KIEV, Ukraine The United States is committed to Ukraine's security and freedom, U.S. 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, Cheney also repeated that Ukraine would eventually join NATO, despite fierce resistance from Moscow.
The strong words from 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 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," Cheney said following 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 Yushchenko's Western-leaning government, which has become increasingly nervous about its relations with Moscow. Yushchenko has pushed strongly for closer ties with the European Union and NATO, upsetting both the Kremlin and Ukraine's large Russian-speaking minority.
There are concerns the Kremlin might seek to squeeze Ukraine as it tries to reclaim dominance in former Soviet republics. Ukraine, a 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.
The president also lamented that Russia had used its ships at the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol in the fighting with Georgia a Ukrainian ally. He said only NATO could guarantee Ukraine's independence.
The Georgian war, he said, showed that that "the single, only model for a reliable defense of the territorial integrity of ... Ukraine is joining the all-European, pan-European, North Atlantic system of collective security."
Cheney also met separately with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose aides said they discussed security and energy issues.
Cheney's trip comes at a difficult time in Ukrainian politics: Yushchenko and Tymoshenko are fighting bitterly, setting the government on the verge of collapse. The two are also fierce rivals before the 2010 presidential election.
Prior to Ukraine, Cheney visited oil-rich Azerbaijan and then Georgia, where Russia has recognized the independence of two breakaway Georgian regions: South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Washington also offered Georgia a $1 billion aid package to help it recover from the short but damaging war with Russia over the separatist regions.
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.
Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's lower house of parliament, accused Cheney of trying to forge an "anti-Russian axis."
"It's Cheney who was behind all recent events on the former Soviet turf," Kosachyov said Thursday.