VILNIUS, Lithuania – Vice President Dick Cheney went to Lithuania to discuss a "common vision for a common region," but his remarks in a speech on the Bush administration doctrine of pursuing democracy and freedom around the world seem to have rubbed Russia the wrong way.
At a conference of East European countries once held under Soviet domination, Cheney warned the Russian people that they are at risk of losing many of the freedoms they gained after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
"From religion and the news media, to advocacy groups and political parties, the government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of the people," Cheney said Thursday to officials who represent more than a dozen countries, many on Russia's borders, that are focused on forging closer ties with Western Europe and America.
"Russia has a choice to make. And there is no question that a return to democratic reform in Russia will generate future success for its people and greater respect among fellow nations," the vice president said.
Cheney condemned Moscow for temporarily turning off natural gas supplies to Europe when it shut down a pipeline through Ukraine last New Year's Day. An agreement eventually ended the impasse, but it raised questions of Russia's dependability as a supplier.
"No legitimate interest is served when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail, either by supply manipulation or attempts to monopolize transportation," Cheney said.
A Kremlin spokesman shrugged off the vice president's comments as "incomprehensible." But former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev fired back a tougher response.
"It is nothing else but provocation and intrusion in the internal affairs of Russia. That's it," Gorbachev was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin expressed annoyance that Russia had not been invited to the conference of former Soviet republics and allies.
A Russian lawmaker, ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, dismissed Cheney's comments as "absolutely false accusations." He said Cheney had expressed the opinion "of only part of the U.S. political elite" but not that of Bush.
White House officials insist Cheney merely repeated concerns that Bush administration officials have expressed before.
"Secretary Rice has expressed them, the president has expressed them," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
In fact, in March, President Bush admitted the erosion of Russia's democracy has put additional pressures on U.S.-Soviet relations.
"I haven't given up on Russia. I still think Russia understands that it's in her interest to be West, to work with the West and to act in concert with the West," Bush said in a speech to Freedom House in Washington, D.C.
"Nobody is saying to Russia, you must look like the United States of America. But we are saying there's just some basic institutions that ought to be adopted. And I will continue making that case," Bush said.
The president has said his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin is strong enough for him to talk tough about their differences before they meet in July at a summit in St. Petersburg that Russia is hosting for the world's richest democracies.
Cheney said Bush at that time will also press the case that "Russia has nothing to fear and everything to gain from having strong, stable democracies on its borders, and that by aligning with the West, Russia joins all of us on a course to prosperity and greatness."
Moscow's critics say the soaring price of oil along with Russia's huge supplies of oil and natural gas have strengthened Putin's hand. They've allowed him to prop up the leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, after apparently fraudulent elections in March, and to convince Uzbekistan to end U.S. use of a military base there.
Some foreign policy analysts say it's a return to zero sum politics.
"They look at us and they say anything that's good for the United States must be bad for Russia and vice versa. That's different than just 10 years ago," said Michael McFaul, a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
McFaul said at least one huge issue, ending Iran's nuclear program, happens to be in Russia's interest as well as the United States'. He said he thinks Moscow will eventually agree to cooperate inside the United Nations Security Council by putting pressure on Iran. Russia is one of the five permanent, veto-holding members of the Security Council. It has opposed recently opposed tough punishment for Iran, with whom it is a major trading partner.
On Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton said the permanent five members may meet on the weekend to try to achieve an agreement by Monday night on how to handle Iran. The Security Council is getting a briefing on Friday afternoon. China and Russia so far have been the two hurdles to sanctions or other action against Iran.
McFaul said even if the U.S. and Russia blow past the latest rhetoric, the relationship is not what it used to be.
"It's not the '90s. It's not when we can talk about we're going to cooperate in the name of democracy and shared values. That period is over," McFaul added.
In his speech, Cheney said opponents of reform in Russia "are seeking to reverse the gains of the last decade" after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet empire.
Much of the vice president's speech was a compliment to Eastern European countries for the strides they have made toward democracy, a summons to maintain a "steady, hopeful advancement over time" and a pledge that the United States would help.
Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, who hosted the conference, voiced concern that the freedoms gained since the end of the Cold War might not prove to be as durable as hoped. "Even if the choice of democracy is open to all states and peoples, the threat of new Iron Curtains in minds and on the ground has not disappeared," he said from the same podium where Cheney later delivered his own remarks.
The vice president's speech was the centerpiece of a weeklong trip that will also take him to Kazakhstan and Croatia, two other countries freed by the fall of the Soviet Empire. He held individuals meetings Thursday with the leaders of Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Georgia.
FOX News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.