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U.S. Vice President Visits Ukraine Divided On NATO

Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Ukraine late on September 4.

Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Ukraine late on September 4.

KYIV -- U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney is to discuss the Georgia crisis with the leaders of Ukrainian, which is deeply divided over NATO membership and distracted by a domestic political crisis.

Cheney is on a whistle-stop tour of South Caucasus and Black Sea states designed to shore up support for U.S. allies there after Russia's five-day war last month with Georgia.

An outspoken Moscow critic, Cheney came to Kyiv after talks in Georgia and oil-producing Azerbaijan, two key links in an energy corridor that bypasses Russia to bring around 1 percent of world crude oil output daily to market from the Caspian Sea.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has stepped up calls for swift NATO membership following conflict in Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region, but his political rivals are either cool or openly oppose an alliance seen as hostile to Ukraine's giant neighbor Russia.

Moscow sent tanks and troops deep into Georgian territory to prevent what it called genocide when Tbilisi attempted to retake the pro-Russian province of South Ossetia by force on August 7.

The Kremlin subsequently recognized South Ossetia and a second rebel region, Abkhazia, as independent states, drawing strong condemnation from Washington and Europe.

EU President France brokered a cease-fire to the conflict and EU foreign ministers meet in southern France later on September 5 to discuss sending civilian monitors to the zone.

"The aim is for the EU mission to go as soon as it can," said one EU official before the two-day meeting. A decision to deploy an initial 200-plus personnel could be made in just over a week, after French President Nicolas Sarkozy returns from a trip to Moscow, the official added.

Divided On NATO

The European Union, a major consumer of Russian oil and gas, has threatened to suspend talks on a partnership agreement if Moscow fails to withdraw its troops to preconflict positions in Georgia by September 15. But EU leaders said sanctions would only isolate Russia and be counterproductive.

A U.S. official said Washington, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's main Western ally, was likely to scrap a civilian nuclear deal with Russia. It was intended to lift Cold War restrictions on trade and open up the U.S. nuclear market and Russia's uranium fields to companies from both countries.

The Georgia crisis has alarmed Russia's neighbors, and Ukraine's Yushchenko says he sees NATO membership as vital to protect Ukraine's territorial integrity.

"This is only possible in one situation -- when Ukraine integrates into the trans-Atlantic alliance [NATO], starting with receiving the MAP [Membership Action Plan]," he said in a statement on his website.

NATO states in April refused to give Ukraine and Georgia a MAP -- the first step towards membership -- but said they would one day join the alliance.

NATO countries will revisit the issue in December but Washington's top envoy to the Caucasus, Matthew Bryza, said on August 23 that Russia's actions in Georgia had underscored the importance of NATO membership.

"Russia did not lift a finger against the Baltic states once they entered NATO. It would not lift a finger against Ukraine if Ukraine were in NATO," he told Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio.

France and Germany opposed granting Ukraine a membership roadmap in April, however, and the crisis over Georgia is likely to have confirmed their reticence.

Analysts say the Crimea region in southern Ukraine could be used by Russia to destabilize the country. It hosts Russia's Black Sea Fleet in the port of Sevastopol, and the majority of people living there are ethnic Russians.

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine peaked towards the end of last month when Yushchenko, a stout supporter of Georgia, imposed stricter rules of movement for the Russian fleet based in the rented port.

Yushchenko was angered that Russia used ships from the fleet in the conflict with Georgia, saying this "passively" involved Ukraine in the war. He repeated that the lease agreement, due to run out in 2017, would not be extended.

But despite his tough stance, NATO membership remains deeply unpopular in Ukraine and support for it has shown no signs of increasing in the wake of the Georgian crisis.

Pro-Western reformist parties are split on the issue and opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych, whose support comes largely from Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine, is hostile to the move.

Cheney's visit comes at a time of turbulent domestic politics. Yushchenko announced on September 3 that Kyiv's coalition government had collapsed and threatened to call a snap parliamentary vote.

It would be the third election in as many years in Ukraine, where Yushchenko swept to power in the 2004 Orange Revolution on a promise of greater integration with the West.