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Cheney backs membership in NATO for Georgia

TBILISI, Georgia: Vice President Dick Cheney flew here on Thursday to deliver a forceful American pledge to rebuild Georgia and its economy, to preserve its sovereignty and its territory and to bring it into the NATO alliance in defiance of Russia.

Cheney spent only four and a half hours in Georgia, but the visit included a strong rebuke to Russia's behavior and a highly symbolic visit to American troops unloading humanitarian supplies at the airport here within sight of an airplane factory that Russian bombs had damaged.

He arrived a day after the United States pledged $1 billion to help Georgia recover from its defeat by Russia's armed forces, which continue to control two breakaway regions, as well as buffer zones in Georgia.

Standing beside President Mikheil Saakashvili, Cheney said that the United States had strongly supported Georgia since protests in 2003 ushered a democratic government to power and that it would continue to do so despite Russia's proclamations that Saakashvili's government was illegitimate.

"I assured the president as well of my country's strong commitment to Georgia's territorial integrity," Cheney said after meeting with Saakashvili, without aides, for more than an hour, twice the scheduled time. "Georgia has that right, just as it has the right to build stronger ties to friends in Europe and across the Atlantic."

The Bush administration has been Georgia's most vocal supporter in its conflict with Russia, leaving diplomatic efforts to negotiate a cease-fire almost entirely to leaders from the European Union, including President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.

In his remarks with Saakashvili, though, Cheney left little room for negotiation, denouncing what he called "an illegitimate, unilateral attempt to change your country's borders by force that has been universally condemned by the free world."

Cheney reiterated previous administration statements that Russia risked its international standing, though with some of the strongest language yet.

"Russia's actions have cast grave doubt on Russia's intentions and on its reliability as an international partner, not just in Georgia but across this region and indeed throughout the international system," he said.

It is not clear that the administration's harsh criticism has had any discernible effect on Russia's leaders, President Dmitri Medvedev and the man widely considered to be in charge, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In fact, Russian officials have largely ignored the new American aid and Cheney's trip to the region, which also included a visit to Azerbaijan on Wednesday. After leaving Georgia, Cheney flew to Ukraine.

Defying international warnings, Russia last week recognized the independence of the breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and now appears to be consolidating its control over them.

For some, Cheney's trip recalled another foray to the region in 2006, during which the vice president accused Moscow of using oil and gas as "tools of intimidation or blackmail." In that light, one expert said, Cheney's mere presence is potentially an aggravating factor.

"Given Cheney's reputation in Moscow, given his rhetorical history, sending him to Georgia risks escalating the situation," Clifford Kupchan of the Eurasia Group, a consultancy in Washington, said of the vice president's visit. "We're in a stage of mutual overreaction."

Saakashvili, for his part, welcomed the American pledge of assistance and appeared to relish accompanying Cheney to the airport during the visit with American troops, including the crew of a C-130 cargo plane that arrived Thursday from Ramstein, Germany, with a load of blankets. "We feel that we are not alone," he said.

Significantly, the new American assistance does not include any aid for rebuilding Georgia's battered armed forces, which fared badly against a much larger Russian force that entered the country after the Georgians tried to seize control of South Ossetia on the night of Aug. 7.

The Pentagon has begun considering Georgian pleas for help to re-equip and train its army, with the use of more sophisticated weapons. But a senior administration official traveling with Cheney said that Georgia first needed to revive its economy. "Over time, I'm sure, people will look at what happened with the military here and what its needs are," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But I think the focus for the moment is on the humanitarian and long-term economic needs."

Initial problems distributing American relief supplies, largely because of Russian roadblocks, have abated, allowing the aid to flow to most areas where it is needed, the official said. As of Thursday, the American military had delivered nearly $38 million worth of food, blankets, cots and other supplies.

An American command ship from the Sixth Fleet, the Mount Whitney, is now in the Black Sea headed to Georgia with still more. It will be the third American warship to dock in Georgia in the last month, a naval relief operation the Russians have denounced as military, not humanitarian.

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