By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Vice President Cheney will travel next week to war-ravaged Georgia as part of a swing through several former Soviet republics, making him the highest-level U.S. emissary to visit the country since hostilities between Russia and Georgia broke out this month, officials said yesterday.
The trip will put the Bush administration's most prominent hawk in a war zone still occupied by lingering Russian troops, and is likely to irritate leaders in Moscow, who have condemned the United States for siding with Georgia in the conflict.
It will also underscore the extent of disagreement within the Bush administration over how forcefully to confront Moscow. Cheney and his aides unsuccessfully argued in favor of increasing military aid to the fledgling Georgian democracy, according to officials familiar with the debate.
The trip, beginning next Tuesday, will include stops in three former Soviet republics -- Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine -- and then a visit to Italy for an annual conference of world leaders, officials said. The visit follows a trip to Georgia's capital of Tbilisi by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"The trip gives us an opportunity to move forward both here in the U.S. government, and also with our counterparts in Europe who want to support Georgia's economic and military reconstruction," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said yesterday in Crawford, Tex., where President Bush is on vacation. "Developments lately in Georgia have increased the importance of this visit."
U.S. officials said the visits to all locations except Ukraine had been in the works before the war in Georgia, which erupted Aug. 7 after Georgia launched an artillery barrage against the pro-Russian province of South Ossetia. Russia responded by advancing deep into Georgia, and it has kept military posts there despite a cease-fire.
Also yesterday, Russian lawmakers urged the Kremlin to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two breakaway Georgian provinces at the heart of the dispute. Bush said in a statement he is "deeply concerned" by the move, and called on Russia "to meet its commitments and not recognize these separatist regions."
Georgia has quickly become a favorite destination for U.S. politicians in the wake of its fight with Russia. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) traveled to the country before Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) picked him as his vice presidential running mate. Cindy McCain, the wife of Republican presidential hopeful John McCain (Ariz.), departed yesterday for Tbilisi, according to her husband's campaign [Story, A26].
Cheney's visit is likely to be watched closely in part because he is widely seen as a representative of the Bush administration's most hawkish tendencies. During a trip to Lithuania in May 2006, Cheney accused Russia of "unfairly and improperly" restricting the rights of its people, and of using oil and gas as "tools of intimidation or blackmail" against its neighbors. The comments enraged Russian officials and complicated ongoing negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.
Fratto said Cheney has no plans to visit Moscow during his trip.
Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Cheney's visit will probably amplify the "mixed messages" coming from Washington over the Georgian crisis. "Cheney certainly has had a tougher view on Russia than some others in the administration," he said.
While Bush and others from both parties have railed against Russia for its actions, the official U.S. response has been limited primarily to diplomatic efforts and humanitarian aid. The Pentagon has explicitly ruled out a military confrontation with Russia.
One of Cheney's senior aides, Joseph R. Wood, visited Georgia shortly before the war with Russia began, administration officials said. Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride said Wood was in Tbilisi as part of planning for the vice president's trip, and said the visit had no connection to the later conflict with Russia.
Several days after the fighting with Russia began, Cheney told Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in a telephone call that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered," according to an account by Cheney's office. He also said Russia's actions "would have serious consequences for its relations with the United States, as well as the broader international community," the statement said.
Asked yesterday about Cheney's earlier remarks, Fratto said Russia's behavior has "been loudly answered."
"Russia's reputation has suffered since it took these disproportionate military steps in Georgia," Fratto said, adding that the United States is "reviewing our entire relationship with Russia."
Staff writers Glenn Kessler in Washington and Rosalind S. Helderman in Crawford, Tex., contributed to this report.