Washington rejects the Kremlin's claim to a sphere of influence over former Soviet nations, U.S. Vice President Biden declared Wednesday before receiving a hero's welcome in Georgia.
Biden is on a mission to reassure both Ukraine and Georgia that the United States will not abandon them as President Obama seeks to improve badly strained ties with Russia. Both former Soviet republics are trying to throw off Russian influence and integrate more closely with the West.
Biden flew from Kiev to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, where flag-waving Georgians lined the streets as his motorcade passed by. A banquet and a concert in his honor were being held later Wednesday.
Georgia's five-day war with Russia last August turned the small nation on the far frontier of Europe into the epicenter of the simmering conflict between Moscow and the West. Obama's attempt to rebuild relations with Russia has raised concerns among some East European nations that the U.S. might sacrifice their interests for the sake of better ties with Moscow.
Biden has been attempting to assuage those concerns on his four-day trip.
"As we reset the relationship with Russia, we reaffirm our commitment to an independent Ukraine, and we recognize no sphere of influence or no ability of any other nation to veto the choices an independent nation makes," Biden said in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, earlier Wednesday.
At the Tbilisi airport, Biden was met by an honor guard in cream-colored uniforms and Prime Minister Nikoloz Gilauri as he stepped off Air Force Two.
Hundreds of Georgians lined streets along his route, holding signs saying "Don't Forget Us" and "No to occupation" -- a reference to the Russian troops still stationed in two breakaway Georgian regions.
Biden's motorcade also passed George W. Bush Street, marked by a large sign with the former U.S. president's picture. Due to Bush's steadfast support for Georgia, many here revered him even as he was widely disliked elsewhere abroad, and Bush drew huge crowds on a 2005 visit.
Biden, as the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also visited Georgia shortly after the war with Russia.
President Mikhail Saakashvili's government, shaken this spring by mass street protests demanding his resignation, appeared determined to head off any protests this week.
Ahead of Biden's arrival, police removed dozens of metal cages the opposition had erected in front of parliament to block traffic along Tbilisi's central street and symbolize what critics call Saakashvili's increasing authoritarianism.
No arrests were reported, and no resistance from opposition activists was visible along leafy Rustaveli Avenue, which remained closed to vehicles.
Biden is also meeting with leading opposition members who have taken part in the monthslong demonstrations. Political foes blame Saakashvili for the disastrous war with Russia and accuse him of riding roughshod over democratic rights.
Saakashvili says he was trying to defend Georgia from Russian aggression, and he announced political reforms Monday to address complaints that his administration was restricting rights.
After Georgia used military force to try to seize a breakaway region from Moscow-backed separatists in August, Russia sent tanks and warplanes deep into Georgian territory, crushing the country's army. The conflict inflamed Russia's ambition to reclaim its historic role as an assertive regional power with global ambitions.
The Russia-Georgia war capped years of increasing tensions between the West and Georgia, a country key to U.S. and European efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, battle terrorism and secure Europe's energy supplies.
Shortly after the Georgian war, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared that Moscow has a "zone of privileged interests" among former Soviet and Eastern European satellites. The U.S. and Europe have rejected sphere-of-influence geopolitics, which give great powers sway over their smaller neighbors.
In Ukraine, Biden also urged Ukraine's feuding leaders to seek a compromise and concentrate on reforming the country's devastated economy, meeting separately with bitter rivals Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Domestic support for NATO membership is significantly greater in Georgia than in Ukraine.
"(Russia) should not be allowed to kill these hopes," Georgian Defense Minister David Sikharulidze told The Associated Press on Wednesday.