U.S. Vice President Mike Pence praised Montenegrin leaders on August 1 for standing up to "Russian pressure" on his final stop of an Eastern European tour aimed at reassuring U.S. allies in the region.
Pence arrived in the tiny Balkan nation, NATO's newest member, after a visit to Georgia, where he slammed Russia's "occupation" of the Caucasus nation's territory since a brief war in 2008.
At a dinner with Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic, Prime Minister Dusko Markovic, and other Montenegrin political leaders, Pence said his trip to the nation of 620,000 is "testament to the fact that America has no small allies -- only strong allies."
"Your courage, particularly in the face of Russian pressure, inspires the world, and I commend you for it," he said.
Pence, who began his tour in Estonia on July 20, hopes to soothe allies rattled by Russia's aggression in Ukraine and Georgia as well as its deep involvement in political movements throughout the region, including one that sought to stop Montenegro's accession to NATO in June.
Montenegro has accused Russia of fomenting a coup attempt last year to try to block its closer alliance with the West.
Two Russian nationals are among 14 people charged with taking part in the alleged plot. Moscow dismisses the accusations.
On August 2, Pence is due to attend the Adriatic Charter summit – a gathering that also brings together leaders from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, and Slovenia.
Earlier on August 1 while visiting Georgia, Pence reaffirmed Washington's support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial and denounced Russia’s “aggression” and “occupation” of Georgian territory.
“America stands with Georgia," Pence said at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili.
“Today, Russia continues to occupy one-fifth of Georgian territory,” Pence said. “So, to be clear -- the United States of America strongly condemns Russia's occupation on Georgia's soil."
The Kremlin recognized Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries after fighting a five-day war against Tbilisi in 2008. Russia maintains thousands of troops in the two regions.
"The United States supports Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders,” Pence said. “And under President Donald Trump, the United States of America will object to any claim at any time by any nation that undermines this enduring principle."
Pence also reiterated that the United States “strongly” supports the Caucasus country’s aspirations to become a NATO member.
"I commended the prime minister for Georgia's democratic development which has brought Georgia closer to unity with Europe and membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” he said. “Further progress on the goals that the prime minister has set will bring Georgia even closer and NATO even closer to your grasp and it will strengthen the bond between our nations."
Pence also met on August 1 with the leaders of the Georgian opposition and addressed troops participating in NATO joint military exercises being conducted in Georgia, saying, “We stand here today in the gap -- on a front line of freedom, a front line compromised by Russian aggression nearly a decade ago.”
Pence was accompanied by Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili during the troop review at the Vaziani military air base outside Tbilisi.
Margvelashvili highlighted the fact that Russian troops remain deployed as occupiers in Georgia's breakaway separatist regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia where they are supporting separatist leaders.
"Some dozen kilometers away there are barb wire fences built and installed to prohibit citizens of my country from free movement," Margvelashvili said. "Just a few kilometers [from here], people are persecuted just because they are Georgians."
"Twenty percent of my nation's territory is occupied because Georgia decided to be a free and independent nation," Margvelashvili continued.
"And this has been continuing for a quarter of a century. The response of the international community appeared not to be enough to stop Russia from treating its neighborhood like its backyard. This policy has no limits unless we stop it. The occupation of Georgian territories must become a game changer [in an effort to] end the confrontation paradigm and the paradigm of spheres of privileged interests."