US Vice President Dick Cheney urged Ukraine’s leaders on Friday to unite against the “threat” posed by Russia at separate talks with the country’s deeply divided president and prime minister.
Ending a tour of US allies in the former Soviet Union, Cheney said the best way to prevent an “invasion” of the kind unleashed against Georgia by Russia last month was for the rivals to overcome their differences and unite.
“We believe in the right of men and women to live without the threat of tyranny, economic blackmail or military invasion or intimidation,” Cheney said after meeting Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
“Ukraine’s best hope to overcome these threats is to be united — united domestically first and foremost and united with other democracies,” he said.
His message came as a top Ukrainian minister warned Russia was stirring separatist feeling in Ukraine by distributing Russian passports.
Using similar language as he did on previous stops on his tour of former Soviet republics Azerbaijan and Georgia, Cheney vowed Washington’s “deep and abiding interest” in Ukraine’s “well-being and security.”
He kept up the pressure on Russia, whose ties with the US have sunk to a post-Cold War low, touting Georgian democracy and slamming Russia’s military actions last month over the rebel region of South Ossetia.
“I arrived here last night from Georgia, a young democracy that in the last month has been subjected to a Russian invasion and an illegitimate, unilateral attempt by force of arms to dismember its territory,” Cheney said.
He also restated US support for Ukraine’s bid to join NATO and warned Russia against attempting to block Ukraine’s entry to the military alliance.
Cheney spoke first with Tymoshenko and later Yushchenko as he looked to heal wounds in Ukraine’s ruling coalition.
The squabbling highlights deep differences between the mainly Russian-speaking southeast of Ukraine and the predominantly Ukrainian-speaking northwest of the country, more oriented towards integration with the West.
Reflecting this, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ogryzko told a German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, that Russia’s consulate on the Crimea peninsula was giving out Russian passports to the population there.
Ogryzko described as a “real problem” Russia’s declared policy of military intervention abroad to protect Russian citizens, given as its casus belli for sending troops into Georgia.
Cheney’s visit to Ukraine came as the flagship of the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet delivered aid to the Georgian port of Poti, close to where Russian forces are based, saying “other countries call their citizens home in crisis periods.”
In Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned that Georgia’s allies were in danger of drawing the wrong conclusions from the conflict and that rearming Georgia could have unclear “consequences.”
Russian officials have repeatedly alleged that the US is rearming Georgia under cover of aid shipments, a charge strenuously denied by Washington.
European officials have suggested Ukraine could be the next flashpoint for tensions between Russia and the West after the war in Georgia last month that has left Russian troops occupying positions deep inside Georgia.