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U.S. Vice President Traveling To Ukraine, Georgia

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. Vice President Joe Biden travels to Georgia and Ukraine next week to reassure the two U.S. allies that the Obama administration has not abandoned them in its efforts to "reset" ties with Russia.

Biden's trip comes just two weeks after Obama visited Moscow for talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin aimed at improving ties that hit a post-Cold War low under former President George W. Bush.

"Our efforts to reset relations with Russia will not come at the expense of any other countries," Biden's national security adviser, Tony Blinken, said on July 17.

Russia regards the former Soviet states as part of its sphere of influence, a view Obama has strongly rejected. Moscow has also fiercely resisted proposals -- led by the Bush administration - to bring the countries into NATO.

Blinken stressed that the message of continued U.S. support to Ukraine and Georgia was not a blank check and Biden would press them to carry out economic and democratic reforms.

In Kiev, Biden's first stop, he will deliver a major speech and urge Ukraine's squabbling leaders to make "hard choices" on energy sector reforms seen as vital for the country's recovery from a severe economic contraction.

The International Monetary Fund last month called on Ukraine's leaders to agree on restructuring the country's ailing state energy firm, Naftohaz.

A European Union official said in Brussels on July 17 that Ukraine had promised to raise household gas prices and enforce payment of bills to strengthen Naftohaz's finances.

The IMF and other international institutions are discussing financing for Ukraine to pay for Russian gas. In January a dispute over payments led Moscow to turn off supplies to Ukraine of Russian gas destined for Europe for two weeks.

'Political Paralysis'

"Our hope is these leaders will live up to the promise of the revolution and make the hard choices to work together," Blinken said, referring to the mass "Orange Revolution" rallies that swept President Viktor Yushchenko to power.

He said the Obama administration was concerned about the "political paralysis" in Kiev that has seen constant bickering between Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Biden's trip to Georgia comes nearly a year since his last visit, during Russia's invasion to thwart an assault by Tbilisi to try to reestablish control over its breakaway region of South Ossetia.

In Tblisi, Biden will push for constitutional and electoral reforms, saying that, as in the case of Ukraine, its revolution "remains a work in progress." Georgia's opposition has accused President Mikheil Saakashvili of monopolizing power since the 2003 "Rose Revolution."

On the politically thorny issue of NATO membership, Blinken said it was up to Ukraine and Georgia to decide whether they wanted to join the alliance.

Obama has been less aggressive than Bush in pushing for the two countries to sign up to NATO, which has said they will join eventually but has declined to put them on an immediate path to membership.