By BEN FELLER
President Bush is dispatching Vice President Dick Cheney to Georgia, setting up a high-ranking diplomatic mission to an ally reeling from war.
The White House announced today that Cheney will head abroad on Sept. 2 for stops in three former Soviet Republics — Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine — plus Italy.
“The president felt it was important to have the vice president consult with allies in the region on our common security interests,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto said today.
The vice president’s office described Cheney’s mission in similarly broad terms, and called it a chance to reiterate the U.S. commitment to its allies.
Indeed, Cheney’s presence in the war zone is a clear sign to Russia of the U.S. resolve behind Georgia after the small country was pummeled by a Russian military response.
Cheney’s office has used tough rhetoric against the former Cold War foe, saying that “Russian aggression must not go unanswered.” The Pentagon has ruled out a military response.
Cheney’s trip was in the works before the war erupted in Georgia on Aug. 7, but clearly takes on heightened significance as a result of it.
Cheney will hold talks in Georgia with President Mikhail Saakashvili, and will meet with the respective presidents of the other countries he is visiting.
The news comes as Russia’s parliament voted unanimously today to urge the country’s president to recognize the independence of Georgia’s two breakaway regions, a move likely to stoke further tensions between Moscow and the small Caucasus nation’s Western allies.
The war erupted Aug. 7 as Georgia launched a massive artillery barrage targeting the separatist province of South Ossetia. Russian forces repelled the offensive and attacked deep into Georgia, taking crucial positions across the small former Soviet republic.
Russia pulled the bulk of its troops and tanks out Friday under a cease-fire brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but built up its forces in and around South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another separatist region. It also left military posts inside Georgia proper.
Bush has been adamant that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are part of Georgia.
Russia’s attack and its actions after the cease-fire have caused serious strains in relations with the West, and heightened fears in the young Eastern European democracies. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a quick trip to Georgia earlier this month to help seal the cease-fire agreement.
Cheney’s trip was originally driven by his plans to attend the Ambrosetti forum in Italy, an annual meeting of world leaders. The Georgia and Azerbaijan stops have been planned for some time. The visit to Ukraine was recently added.
Ukraine, like Georgia, has angered Moscow by seeking closer ties with the West and membership in the NATO military alliance. While siding with Georgia, Ukrainian officials have acknowledged that Moscow’s quick military victory exposed their nation’s own vulnerability.