POTI, Georgia The flagship of the U.S. Navy's Mediterranean fleet anchored Friday outside this key Georgian port, defiantly delivering humanitarian aid to the war-ravaged U.S. ally in a slap at Moscow.
The USS Mount Whitney was the first Navy ship to travel to Poti since Georgia's five-day war with Russia last month. The continued presence of hundreds of Russian soldiers here has been a major point of friction between Russia and the West, which insists Moscow hasn't honored a cease-fire deal to pull back to positions held before fighting broke out Aug. 7.
Out on the water, the Mount Whitney rode at anchor in choppy seas and a brisk wind as Navy officers escorted visitors around. One of Poti's two Russian camps could be seen from the deck, the blue flag used by Russian peacekeeping forces flapping in the breeze.
Two U.S. ships had already come and gone from Georgia carrying humanitarian aid, but they anchored at Batumi, a smaller port to the south with no Russian military presence.
The in-your-face anchorage at Poti came as Vice President Dick Cheney visited nearby Ukraine, another former Soviet republic that feels threatened by Moscow's military belligerence.
Cheney pledged that the U.S. is committed to Ukraine's security and freedom and said Ukrainians should not be forced to live under a Russian "threat of tyranny, economic blackmail and military invasion."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Russia was "deepening its isolation" by not honoring commitments to withdraw its troops from Georgia.
But Russia delivered a diplomatic counterpunch, receiving support Friday from the leaders of six other former Soviet republics who issued a joint statement condemning Georgia for using force to try to retake control of its separatist province of South Ossetia.
The declaration by members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization linking Moscow with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan also praised Russia for "helping peace and security" in the region.
However, the allies did not go as far as the Kremlin and recognize Georgia's two separatist areas South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent nations. On Friday, the leftist president of Nicaragua made his Central American nation the only other state to offer such recognition.
Russia has voiced suspicion of the arrival of the Mount Whitney and other U.S. warships carrying aid. It says U.S. military assistance in the past encouraged Georgia to launch its offensive in South Ossetia and argues the new shipments could be a cover for weapons deliveries.
U.S. officials dismiss those accusations, saying the ships are carrying only humanitarian supplies such as blankets and powered milk.
"There are absolutely no weapons of any sort on these ships," said Capt. John Moore, commander of the Navy task force bringing aid to Georgia.
In an apparent reference to a $1 billion aid package for Georgia announced by Washington on Wednesday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sternly warned against providing more assistance to Georgia.
"We don't want that Georgia, which acted as the aggressor, continues to arm itself in an uncontrolled way and with unknown aims and completely unclear consequences," he said.
"It seems to me this is a lesson for the entire world community, including for those who make decisions to provide Georgia with extra financing and technical military cooperation," Medvedev added, without specifying any nation.
During the war, Russian forces bombed Poti, which has a large oil shipment facility, attacked the port and sank eight Georgian naval vessels in the harbor. Hundreds of heavily armed soldiers that Russia calls "peacekeepers" are camped just four miles from the port.
Still, traffic flowed freely past two Russian checkpoints Friday.
Ketino Kebuchava, the owner of a small grocery store in Poti, welcomed the U.S. warship's arrival.
"We are a small country and we need help," he said. "We welcome anyone but the Russians. We want the Russians out of our city and out of our country."
The Mount Whitney carried more than 17 tons of humanitarian supplies loaded on 40 pallets, all due to be unloaded Saturday, said Capt. Owen Honors, the vessel's commander. But the huge ship could have accommodated far more aid, suggesting its mission was as much political as practical.
The ship will unload aid at Poti's commercial port, next door to a badly damaged Georgian naval base.
Signs of destruction were all around. The missile boat Dioskuria the flagship of Georgia's small navy sat with its hull under water, badly damaged communications masts protruding. The windows of Georgia's naval headquarters were shattered, the buildings pockmarked by bullet holes.
The port's director of security, Vakhtang Chichradze, said there was little that Russian troops didn't steal, saying they hauled away chairs, light switches, radiators and even five U.S.-made military Humvees.
"From the military port, they took armchairs, toilets everything," he said.
Moscow signaled it would not impede the Mount Whitney's movement. But, contrary to earlier reports, Lt. Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the U.S. European Command, said Russians would not be inspecting the aid.
"That will not be allowed," Dorrian said. "The port of Poti is Georgian sovereign territory."
Georgian Defense Minister David Kezerashvili told The Associated Press that the command ship's arrival sent a strong message to Moscow. "It's very important for an American ship to stand for the defense of democracy against the totalitarian regime of Russia," he said.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry official Andrei Nesterenko offered a measured response to the Mount Whitney's arrival.
"There is no talk of military action," he said, but again questioned the use of Navy ships. "It is unlikely that warships of this class can deliver humanitarian aid in great quantities," he said.
Cheney's visit to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, came after trips to Georgia and another former Soviet state, oil-rich Azerbaijan.
He reiterated Washington's view that Georgia and Ukraine will eventually join NATO despite fierce resistance from Moscow.
"The United States has a deep and abiding interest in your well-being and security," Cheney said after meeting with Ukrainian 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 pushed strongly for closer ties with the European Union and NATO.
"We value our strategic bilateral relationship highly," Yushchenko told Cheney. "On the majority of the issues, including Georgia, we have an understanding with the United States."