U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney traveled to Azerbaijan on Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy said, as part of a tour in support of Russia's southern neighbors.

Cheney was expected to meet with President Ilham Aliev and other top officials in this Caspian Sea nation — home to some of the largest oil and gas reserves in the former Soviet Union.

The U.S. vice president was later to head to neighboring Georgia, where Washington is trying bolster support for President Mikhail Saakashvili's U.S.-allied government, battered by last month's short war with Russia.

Cheney also will pay a visit to Ukraine for talks with leaders there.

The trip comes amid increasingly tense relations between Washington and Moscow.

Following the war in Georgia, Russia has boldly asserted its right to exert clout over what it says is its historic sphere of influence — including many former Soviet republics.

Both Georgia and Ukraine have sought to pull themselves out from under Russia's shadow, pushing for membership in Western structures like the European Union and NATO — much to Moscow's consternation.

Washington has also courted Azerbaijan, trying to ensure its oil wealth is exported to the West bypassing Russia.

Aliev's government is often criticized by rights groups for heavy-handed treatment of independent media and opposition groups and international observers have said past elections have been flawed.