US urges Balkans to look West as Russia tries to regain influence

US vice-president Mike Pence touring European states that feel Kremlin pressure

US vice-president Mike Pence and Montenegrian prime minister Dusko Markovic shake hands during a joint press conference following their meeting in Podgorica, Montenegro, on Wednesday. Photograph: Boris Pejovic/EPA

US vice-president Mike Pence and Montenegrian prime minister Dusko Markovic shake hands during a joint press conference following their meeting in Podgorica, Montenegro, on Wednesday. Photograph: Boris Pejovic/EPA

 

US vice-president Mike Pence has told Balkan leaders that Washington fully supports their efforts to integrate with the West, on the last leg of his tour of European regions where Russia is trying to expand its influence.

“We truly believe the future of the western Balkans is in the West,” Mr Pence said on Wednesday in Montenegro, which became Nato’s 29th member in June, eight months after an alleged coup attempt that prosecutors claim involved Russian agents.

“We look forward to affirming the commitment of the United States to building relationships and strengthening ties between the European community, the western Balkans and the United States of America,” Mr Pence added.

“I bring greetings from President Donald Trump who sent me here as a visible sign of the alliance that we now enjoy through Nato. ”

As Mr Trump and his closest aides face a blizzard of questions about alleged links to Moscow, Mr Pence and other senior officials have sought to reassure US allies that they still have Washington’s backing in the face of a resurgent Russia.

In the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, Mr Pence was expected to meet the new prime minister of Macedonia, Zoran Zaev, who this year accused Russia of meddling in his country’s affairs during a long and sometimes violent political crisis.

He was also due to meet Ana Brnabic, the new premier of Serbia, which is trying to balance its foreign relations between Russia and the West and seeks membership of the EU while ruling out accession to Nato.

‘Russophobia’

Moscow insists that allegations of interference in the Balkans are signs of western “Russophobia” and it rejects Montenegro’s coup claims.

Russia did warn the tiny Adriatic country of the “strategic consequences” of joining Nato, however, and said it would “reserve the right to take decisions aimed at protecting our interests and national security”.

Having visited Estonia in the Baltic and Georgia in the Caucasus this week, Mr Pence arrived in Montenegro on Tuesday and told his hosts that “your courage, particularly in the face of Russian pressure, inspires the world, and I commend you for it.”

Montenegrin premier Dusko Markovic – who was shoved aside at a photo-call by Mr Trump at a Nato summit in May – said his country of 650,000 people had “irrevocably tied our destiny to the values promoted and defended by” Nato.

He also inadvertently raised a smile from Mr Pence by welcoming him to Podgorica’s “Hotel Clinton” – rather than the Hilton where the talks were being held.

While in Georgia, Mr Pence told Nato troops taking part in exercises there: “We stand here today in the gap – on a front line of freedom, a front line compromised by Russian aggression nearly a decade ago.”

After a short war with Georgia in 2008, Russia recognised the independence of two separatist-controlled regions of the country, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and stationed thousands of its troops in each area.

“Today, Russia continues to occupy one-fifth of Georgian territory,” Mr Pence said. “So, to be clear – the United States of America strongly condemns Russia’s occupation on Georgia’s soil.”