Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, left, and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speak in Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, July 21, 2009. Biden arrived in Ukraine for a three-day working visit. (AP Photo/Mykhailo Markiv)
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday pledged support for efforts by Ukraine and Georgia to break free of Russia's orbit, saying Washington would not recognize Kremlin claims to an exclusive sphere of influence over former Soviet states.
Biden's assurances in visits to both countries bluntly addressed the most volatile issue dividing Russia and the West, and were offered just two weeks after President Barack Obama was in Moscow seeking to heal U.S.-Russia relations.
"As we reset the relationship with Russia, we reaffirm our commitment to an independent Ukraine, and we recognize no sphere of influence or no ability of any other nation to veto the choices an independent nation makes," Biden declared in Kiev, Ukraine's capital.
Biden's comments underlined the U.S. commitment to encouraging Western-style democracies among former Soviet states, despite Russia's open hostility to what it considers meddling in its back yard.
At a banquet in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi on Wednesday evening, Biden said he wanted to send "an unequivocal, clear message to all who will listen and some who don't want to listen, that America stands with you and will continue to stand."
Russian troops crushed Georgia's military in a brief war in Georgia last August, about five years after the country's 2003 Rose Revolution brought President Mikhail Saakashvili to power and ousted a Soviet-era leader.
For weeks this spring, tens of thousands of Georgians jammed central Tbilisi demanding Saakashvili's resignation, accusing him of strengthening his power at the expense of democratic rights. Those protests gradually waned.
Hundreds of demonstrators who lined Biden's route from the airport Wednesday waved flags and held signs saying "Don't Forget Us," sounding a note of defiance. One sign declared "No to occupation" — a reference to the Russian troops stationed in two breakaway Georgian regions.
Biden's motorcade also passed George W. Bush Street, marked by a large sign with the former U.S. president's picture. Because of Bush's steadfast support for Georgia, many revered him at a time when he was widely disliked abroad, and he drew huge crowds on a 2005 visit.
Before Biden's arrival in Tbilisi, police removed from in front of parliament dozens of metal cages blocking traffic that the opposition had erected to symbolize what they called Saakashvili's increasing authoritarianism.
No arrests were reported, and no resistance from opposition activists was visible along leafy Rustaveli Avenue, which remained closed to vehicles after police set up portable metal fencing. About 3,000 opposition demonstrators rallied a short distance away.
Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, last visited Georgia shortly after the war with Russia in August.
At Wednesday's banquet, he called the Rose Revolution "a clarion call for freedom-loving people around the globe," but he also urged the Georgian president to "plant the roots of democracy deep," alluding to criticism of Saakashvili's rule.
He said the U.S. encouraged the growth of civil societies that "hold all governments accountable, yours and mine accountable."
At one point, Biden said in a joking manner: "You mentioned protesters. Welcome to democracy."
Saakashvili called Biden "Joe, my dear friend," and thanked him for his support and "all your belief in us and our cause." He rejected allegations that he has engaged in authoritarian rule.
"For us there is no trade-off between democracy and security," he said.
Saakashvili announced a series of political reforms Monday meant to address his critics' charges.
He predicted Wednesday that sooner or later, the Russians would leave their bases in the two breakaway regions of Georgia, just as Soviet troops left Afghanistan in 1989. After Georgia used military force to try to seize one of the regions from Moscow-backed separatists in August, Russia sent tanks and warplanes deep into Georgian territory, crushing the country's army.
"The Georgian people stand proudly in their resistance, and we will never, ever surrender," he said.
On Thursday, Biden was to meet with leading members of the Georgian opposition.
Shortly after the Georgian war, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared that Moscow has a "zone of privileged interests" among former Soviet and Eastern European satellites. The U.S. and Europe have rejected sphere-of-influence geopolitics, which give great powers sway over their smaller neighbors.
Russia and the West are also divided over Ukraine and Georgia's efforts to join NATO. In Ukraine, Biden reiterated Washington's support for the country's NATO membership, if Ukrainians decide to pursue that goal.
The U.S. has pledged to support NATO membership for Georgia, where popular support for the idea is much greater. But Germany and other European member states are skeptical.