Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, delivered a stinging criticism of Russian president Vladimir Putin?s rule, warning the Kremlin against using gas and oil supplies as ?tools of intimidation and blackmail? and accusing the Russian authorities of ?unfairly? restricting the rights of their citizens.
It was the strongest public rebuke made by a senior American official of Russia?s growing authoritarianism and its increasing willingness to employ energy policy for political ends.
His words will have particular impact in Moscow as they were delivered close to Russia?s borders ? at an international pro-democracy conference in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Kremlin officials will also be concerned that Washington is increasing its criticisms in advance of the St Petersburg Group of Eight summit in July.
Mr Cheney said: ?America and all of Europe?want to see Russia in the category of healthy, vibrant democracies. Yet in Russia today, opponents of reform are seeking to reverse the gains of the last decade. In many areas of civil society ? from religion and the news media to advocacy groups and political parties ? the government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of the people.?
Mr Cheney continued: ?Other actions by the Russian government have been counter-productive and could begin to affect relations with other countries. No legitimate interest is served when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail, either by supply manipulation or attempts to monopolise transportation. And no one can justify actions that undermine the territorial integrity of a neighbour, or interfere with democratic movements.?
The US vice-president did not elaborate but he was clearly referring to this winter?s Russia-Ukraine gas dispute and to recent warnings from Gazprom, the gas giant, that it might develop new markets in Asia and North America if EU states restricted the company?s plans for investment in the EU.
Mr Cheney was also evidently expressing concern about Russian involvement in territorial disputes in Georgia, where the government accuses Moscow of supporting the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Mr Cheney added ?a return to democratic reform? would bring Russia international respect. ?Russia has a choice to make?None of us believes that Russia is fated to become an enemy.?
The vice-president pledged to raise the questions of Georgia, Ukraine and other democratic states on Russia?s borders at the G8 summit. ?We will make the case, clearly and confidently, that Russia has nothing to fear and everything to gain from having strong, stable democracies on its borders and that by aligning with the west, Russia joins us all on a course to prosperity and greatness.?
Mr Cheney was speaking before an audience of east European leaders, including nine presidents, among them Georgia?s Mikheil Saakashvili and Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine. Russian officials were conspicuous by their complete absence. Lithuania was the first stop for Mr Cheney on a tour that will also take him to Kazakhstan and Croatia.
Mr Cheney praised east European states for the progress made in building democracy and urged further efforts. He condemned president Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus for ?running the last dictatorship in Europe? and called for the release of Alexander Milinkevich, the opposition leader, and other activists jailed following demonstrations after the recent presidential elections.
Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus said creating democracy and prosperity in the region was ?still a far, far from finished business?. He informally proposed establishing a democracy fund to finance political, cultural and social initiatives in the region.