KIEV, Ukraine – Vice President Dick Cheney met with top Ukrainian leaders Friday, calling their country's relationship with the United States "very important," as Washington sought to reassure its allies in former Soviet states following Russia's war with Georgia.
Sitting down with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Cheney praised the changes he saw since he was last in Ukraine 20 years ago.
"There have been remarkable changes," he said. "My delegation and I are grateful for the hospitality. This is indeed a very important relationship between Kiev, Ukraine, and the United States."
Yushchenko, meanwhile, emphasized that he shared the United States' critical view of Russian military intervention in Georgia. Yushchenko has been among Russia's harshest critics in the aftermath of the five-day war last month.
"We value our strategic bilateral relationship highly," Yushchenko said. "On the majority of the issues, including Georgia, we have an understanding with the United States."
He added he believed the conflict over Georgia's two separatists regions could be resolved peacefully.
Earlier Friday, Cheney met with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. According to Tymoshenko's aides, the two leaders discussed regional security and stability, as well as efforts to diversify energy supplies.
Cheney's visit came during a political crisis pitting Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, coalition partners, against one another, setting Ukraine's government teetering on the verge of collapse. The two are bitter rivals before Ukraine's 2010 presidential election.
Cheney's trip signaled that the United States will continue cultivating close ties with Ukraine and its neighbors even after Russia showed it was willing to use military force against countries along its border.
Before Ukraine, Cheney visited oil-rich Azerbaijan and then Georgia, where Russia has recognized the independence of two breakaway regions: South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
There are concerns the Kremlin might next seek to squeeze Ukraine as it tries to reclaim dominance in the former Soviet Union. The strategically located country of 46 million has pipelines that carry Russian gas to European consumers and a Black Sea port that is home to a key Russian naval base.
Yushchenko has pushed strongly for closer ties with the European Union and NATO. That in turn has upset the country's large Russian-speaking minority, who want deeper relations with Moscow.
Yushchenko has also objected to Russia using its ships stationed in the Ukrainian base in the war, thus dragging Ukraine into the conflict, and condemned Russia's decision to recognize Georgia's separatist areas as independent states.
The moves have angered Moscow and further strained relations which were already tense over energy disputes and the Russian navy presence in Ukraine.
Cheney told Georgian leaders the United States strongly backed its efforts to join NATO and was expected to say the same to Ukrainian officials.
In Moscow, a Russian Foreign Military spokesman said Friday that U.S. aid to Georgia and Cheney's recent comments will only encourage Georgia's "aggressive ambitions."
Washington announced $1 billion in U.S. economic aid for Georgia earlier this week.
Angry Russian officials have repeatedly said U.S. military aid was instrumental in emboldening Georgia to try to retake South Ossetia by force on Aug. 7. The attack sparked five days of fighting and resulted in Russian forces driving into South Ossetia and on into Georgia.
Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's lower house of parliament, accused Cheney of trying to forge an "anti-Russian axis."
"It's Cheney who was behind all recent events on the former Soviet turf," Kosachyov said Thursday.