POTI, Georgia – The flagship of the U.S. Navy's Mediterranean fleet anchored outside a key Georgian port Friday, defiantly bringing in tons of humanitarian aid to a city still partly occupied by hundreds of Russian troops.
The USS Mount Whitney was the first Navy ship to travel to Poti since Georgia's five-day war with Russia last month. The continued presence of Russian troops here has been a major point of friction between Russia and the West, which insists Russia has failed to honor a deal to pull back to positions held before fighting broke out Aug. 7.
The in-your-face anchorage at Poti came as Vice President Dick Cheney visited nearby Ukraine, another former Soviet republic that feels threatened by Moscow's military aggression.
Cheney pledged in Kiev, the capital, that the United States was committed to Ukraine's security and freedom and said Ukrainians should not be forced to live under Russia's "threat of tyranny, economic blackmail and military invasion."
In a diplomatic counterpunch, Russia received support Friday from six other former Soviet republics who issued a joint statement condemning Georgia for using force to try to retake control of its separatist province of South Ossetia.
The declaration by members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization — which groups Russia with Armenia, Belarus and four Central Asian nations: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — also praised Russia for "helping peace and security" in the region. However, the nations did not go as far as Russia and recognize Georgia's two separatist areas — South Ossetia and Abkhazia — as independent nations.
The Kremlin has watched the arrival of the USS Mount Whitney and other U.S. warships carrying aid with deep suspicion, but a Russian Foreign Ministry official said Friday no military action was planned in response to the U.S. naval presence in the Black Sea.
During the war, Russian forces bombed Poti, which has a large oil shipment facility, attacked the port and sank eight Georgian naval vessels in the harbor. Hundreds of heavily armed soldiers that Russia calls "peacekeepers" are still camped just 4 miles (6 kilometers) from the port.
Still, traffic flowed freely past two Russian checkpoints Friday.
Ketino Kebuchava, the owner of a small grocery store in Poti, welcomed the warship's arrival.
"We are a small country and we need help," he said. "We welcome anyone but the Russians. We want the Russians out of our city and out of our country."
The Mount Whitney will unload aid at Poti's commercial port Saturday, right next door to Poti's badly damaged naval base.
Signs of destruction were all around. The missile boat Dioskuria — the flagship for Georgia's small navy — stood with its hull under water, its badly damaged communications masts protruding from the water. The windows of Georgia's naval headquarters were shattered, the buildings pockmarked by large caliber ammunition.
According to the port's director of security, Vakhtang Chichradze, there was little the Russians didn't steal — hauling away chairs, light switches, radiators as well as five U.S.-made Hummer military vehicles.
"From the military port, they took armchairs, toilets — everything," he said.
Two U.S. ships have already come and gone from Georgia carrying humanitarian aid, but they anchored at Batumi, to the south, a smaller port with no Russian military presence.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other officials have suggested the United States is delivering weapons to Georgia along with humanitarian aid — but U.S. officials have dismissed those accusations and said the aid included blankets and powered milk.
"There are absolutely no weapons of any sort on these ships," said Cpt. John Moore. Moscow had signaled it would not impede the ship's movement. But, contrary to earlier reports, Lt. Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the US European Command, said Russians won't be inspecting the aid.
"That will not be allowed," Dorrian said. "The port of Poti is Georgian sovereign territory."
Georgian Defense David Kezerashvili told the Associated Press that the ship's arrival sent a strong message to Moscow.
"It's very important for an American ship to stand for the defense of democracy against the totalitarian regime of Russia," he said.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry official Andrei Nesterenko offered a measured response to Mount Whitney's arrival.
"There is no talk of military action," he said, but again questioned the use of warships.
"It is unlikely that warships of this class can deliver humanitarian aid in great quantities," Nesterenko added.
In Portugal, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Russia was "deepening its isolation" by not honoring commitments to withdraw forces from Georgia.
Ukraine was the third country Cheney has visited this week, after oil-rich Azerbaijan and Georgia, where Washington announced $1 billion economic aid package to help Georgia rebuild.
Cheney reiterated Friday that Ukraine would eventually join NATO, despite fierce resistance from Moscow.
"The United States has a deep and abiding interest in your well-being and security," Cheney said following talks with President Viktor Yushchenko. "We believe in the right of men and women to live without threat of tyranny, economic blackmail and military invasion or intimidation."
The show of support was important for Yushchenko's Western-leaning government, which has pushed strongly for closer ties with the European Union and NATO.
"We value our strategic bilateral relationship highly," Yushchenko told Cheney. "On the majority of the issues, including Georgia, we have an understanding with the United States."
Yushchenko has also objected to Russia using its ships stationed in Sevastopol, a leased Russian military base in Ukraine, during the war, and condemned Russia's decision to recognize Georgia's two separatist areas as independent states.
Cheney met separately with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, discussing regional security and 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.
In the French city of Avignon, European Union nations called Friday for an international probe to determine which country should shoulder responsibility for starting the war between Georgia and Russia.