Russia says U.S. fanning Georgian aggression
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney appealed to Ukraine's divided leaders on Friday to unite and forge closer links with the West, pledging Washington's support for Kiev to join the NATO military alliance.
Cheney was visiting amid a political crisis in Ukraine which has split the ruling coalition and sparked fresh debate about whether the former Soviet republic should draw closer to the West, to Russia, or pursue a neutral stance.
"The United States has a deep and abiding interest in your well-being and security," Cheney said after meeting President Viktor Yushchenko, a pro-Western leader seeking rapid NATO membership.
Ukraine's best hope to overcome threats, he added, "is to be united, united domestically first and foremost, and united with other democracies."
The vice president later visited a memorial to victims of a devastating famine in the 1930s, triggered after Soviet ruler Josef Stalin forced peasants into collective farms.
Cheney's visit was likely to anger neighbouring Russia, already irritated at his strong support on Thursday for Georgian membership of NATO. Moscow wants to keep Ukraine, a key gas transit country, part of its sphere of influence.
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman attacked Cheney for making fresh promises to Georgia on Thursday about NATO membership, saying this encouraged Georgian aggression.
Russia and Georgia fought a brief war last month after Tbilisi sent in troops to try to seize back the rebel region of South Ossetia, provoking massive retaliation by Moscow.
"The new promises to Tbilisi relating to the speedy membership of NATO simply strengthen the (President Mikheil) Saakashvili regime's dangerous feeling of impunity and encourages its dangerous ambitions," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko told reporters.
The conflict has hurt Russian stocks and the rouble as foreign investors pull money out because of the increased political risk. Russian shares plunged more than 7 percent on Friday to their lowest level in over two years and the Central Bank intervened on Thursday to prop up the rouble, Reuters reported.