Mr. Cheney, known widely for his hawkish foreign-policy views, leaves Tuesday for stops in Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Georgia, which a reassertive Russia deems to be within its sphere of influence. Cheney's departure will be a day after the European Union takes up the Georgia-Russia crisis in an emergency summit.
The West is gingerly trying to decide how to calibrate consequences and maintain cooperation with Russia, which seems less prone to cooperation and more reactive to consequences. While the West might promise stronger commitments to countries in the former Soviet space, such pledges risk further complicating any Russian cooperation.
The West puts value on a Russia that is still needed in the fold of the international community – and is a source of energy.
How the West proceeds could affect the balance of power in a newly nervous Central Europe. It could also affect the course of international crises as varied as Iran's nuclear program and the Middle East conflict.
On Thursday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the 27-nation EU would consider imposing sanctions and other punitive measures on Russia at its snap summit Monday. The French government, which holds the body's rotating presidency, called the summit in the wake of the Russia–Georgia conflict.
In the weeks ahead, the US Congress is likely to look at options for boosting Georgia's defensive military capabilities. And some policymakers are pushing NATO to give up its post-cold-war preference for confidence-building measures with Russia and an aversion to potentially provocative steps involving the alliance's newest members and partners.
While some say the West's options are limited, others contend they are virtually nonexistent with a Russia bent on flexing its muscle and having Europe over a barrel – of oil, as it were.
"I just don't see that the West in general or the United States in particular has any cards left to engage Russia in some strategic game," says Igor Lukes, a professor specializing in contemporary Russian and Eastern European affairs at Boston University. "Cheney may have a well-deserved reputation for being hawkish, but the US is not going to confront Russia to maintain the territorial integrity of Georgia, and the Russians know it."
As for the prospects for sanctions from the EU, Mr. Lukes says the threats "ring hollow." Russia furnishes the EU with about half of its energy supplies – about 45 percent of Germany's energy supply alone, he notes. "The Europeans won't do anything to encourage a confrontation with Russia. They simply can't afford to do it," he says.
The notion of an Atlantic alliance with its hands tied has only gained steam since the Russia-Georgia conflict was touched off earlier this month. After Georgian soldiers moved to end a decades-old territorial dispute by attempting to take back the breakaway enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian troops pounced on Georgia – where they remain in reduced numbers today.
Earlier this week, Russia recognized the two regions as independent, further stoking international condemnation and feeding the fears of countries like Ukraine and Poland, an EU member, still mindful of Soviet domination.
But some experts see steps that Western governments and institutions can take to demonstrate to Russia that its actions won't go unchallenged.
"Sending Cheney to Georgia and places jittery over Russia's actions demonstrates the seriousness with which the administration takes this crisis, and it suggests some desperation over the lack of good options for dealing with a very complicated situation," says Wess Mitchell, director of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington. "But there are nevertheless things the US and the West can do to show Russia that its actions will have consequences."
Among the more symbolic gestures possible, the seven charter members of the Group of Eight industrialized countries can threaten to push Russia out of the club, which Moscow craved joining. On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of the original members issued a joint statement "condemning the action of our fellow G8 member," Russia.
The US and NATO can also consider ways to bolster the defenses of new members, such as the Baltic states, and to fortify the militaries of partners in the former Soviet space, Mr. Mitchell says. But they have to be careful not to go too far, he says.
The complications of slapping Russia with consequences have been discussed widely in the context of the Iranian nuclear program, with US officials mindful of a need to keep Russia on board in dealing with that issue. But the repercussions of any consequences could extend far, including to a US-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement reached last year that was hailed as a major accomplishment of the Bush administration.
The agreement, which awaits congressional approval, is frozen as a result of Russia's foray into Georgia. (At least, that's the administration's public stance.) But some US officials argue that the broad goal of nuclear security must move forward and not be dragged down by the separate issue of Russian regional actions.
Says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington: "The public course of action is one of competition and confrontation, but on this [nuclear security] issue, it seems we're still moving quietly towards cooperation."