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Page last updated at 15:37 GMT, Friday, 5 September 2008 16:37 UK

Ukraine 'must live without fear'

US Vice-President Dick Cheney (r) and Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko
Mr Cheney aims to strengthen ties with Russia's neighbours

US Vice-President Dick Cheney has said Ukraine has the right to live without fear of invasion, adding that the US stands by its bid for Nato membership.

Mr Cheney met both the prime minister and president in Kiev, the last stop of a tour aimed at underlining support for US allies in the former Soviet Union.

Mr Cheney reassured the president that the US had a "deep and abiding interest" in Ukraine's security.

Analysts fear Ukraine could be the next flashpoint between Russia and the West.

"We believe in the right of men and women to live without the threat of tyranny, economic blackmail or military invasion or intimidation," Mr Cheney said, in an apparent reference to Russia's military intervention in Georgia.

'Hostage'

Mr Cheney arrived in Ukraine just days after the country was plunged into political turmoil.

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Mr Cheney arrives to meet President Yushchenko

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's party blocked a motion condemning Russia's actions in Georgia, and sided with the opposition to vote for a curb on the president's powers.

Members of President Viktor Yushchenko's party walked out of the coalition government in protest, leading the president to warn that he could be forced to call a snap general election.

Mr Cheney urged the politicians to heal their divisions and be "united domestically first and foremost".

"Ukraine's best hope to overcome these threats is to be united," he said following separate meetings with Mr Yushchenko and his former ally turned political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Solidarity

Mr Cheney expressed support for Ukraine's bid to become a member of Nato.

Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko (image from February 25, 2008)

"Ukrainians have a right to choose whether they wish to join Nato, and Nato has a right to invite Ukraine to join the alliance when we believe they are ready and that the time is right," he said.

Russia is strongly opposed to any further expansion eastwards of Nato, and is furious that Ukraine and Georgia have been told that, one day, they will be offered membership.

But Mr Cheney - recognising Ukraine's contributions to Nato missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo - said that no country beyond Nato would be able to block Ukraine's membership bid.

The BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse, in Kiev, says the remarks - which come at the end of a three-country tour of former Soviet states - were designed in part with a Russian audience in mind after Moscow's military action in Georgia last month.

Strategic state

But at a summit of six ex-Soviet states in Moscow on Friday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that leaders had expressed unanimous support for Russia over its military action in Georgia.

"The position of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) heads of state on Georgian aggression against South Ossetia were in solidarity (with Russia)," he said.

"The member states are deeply concerned by Georgia's attempt to solve the conflict in South Ossetia by violent means which led to numerous deaths among civilians and peacekeepers."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev with members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation

The member states are deeply concerned by Georgia's attempt to solve the conflict in South Ossetia by violent means

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

The CSTO's seven member states include Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

President Yushchenko says Ukraine is a hostage in a war waged by Russia against ex-Soviet bloc states.

The strategically-located country is important to Russia, with pipelines that carry Russian gas to European consumers and its Black Sea port, home to a key Russian naval base.

Russia has a powerful tool at its disposal, namely the large ethnic Russian population in Ukraine's southern province of Crimea.

Mr Yushchenko has restricted Russia's naval operations, and insists Moscow must leave when an inter-state treaty expires in 2017.

Ukraine has said it is ready to make its missile early warning systems available to European nations following Russia's conflict with Georgia.

Mr Cheney's visit comes at an awkward time for President Yushchenko, with the country's largely pro-Western ruling coalition divided in its attitude toward Russia.

Our correspondent says the leaders' faltering relationship has now boiled over into open aggression, with Mr Yushchenko threatening to dissolve parliament and call a snap election.

The president has been a staunch supporter of his Georgian counterpart, Mikhail Saakashvili.

But Ms Tymoshenko has avoided outright condemnation of Russia, leading analysts to suggest she may be hoping for Moscow's backing in a possible bid for the presidency in 2010.





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