U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has told leaders of the Western Balkans that the United States will continue to hold Russia “accountable for its actions.”
“We must be resolute and uncompromising in the face of aggression from an unpredictable country that casts a shadow from the East,” Pence told a summit of the Adriatic Charter in Montenegro on August 2.
“Russia continues to seek to redraw international borders by force, and here in the Western Balkans Russia has worked to destabilize the region, undermine your democracies, and divide you from each other and from the rest of Europe,” Pence said.
“The United States of America rejects any attempt to use force, threats, or intimidation in this region or beyond,” he added. “The Western Balkans have the right to decide your own future.”
The gathering in Podgorica was also attended by heads of states and governments of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia.
Earlier on his Montenegrin trip, Pence said the future of the Western Balkans is “in the West." The visit is his final stop of an Eastern European tour aimed at reassuring U.S. allies in the region in the face of an emboldened Russia.
"We truly believe the future of the Western Balkans is in the West," Pence said ahead of a summit with Montenegrin and regional leaders in Podgorica on August 2.
"We look forward to reaffirming the commitment of the United States to build the relationships that will strengthen the ties between the European community, the Western Balkans, and the United States of America," he told reporters.
He also called Montenegro’s accession to NATO in June a "historic achievement" for the country and "a sign of the strength of this country 10 years after its independence" from former Yugoslavia.
He was speaking alongside Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic, who said the small Balkan nation had "irrevocably" tied itself with the West and its values when it joined NATO.
Pence will later join the heads of states and governments at a summit of the Adriatic Charter -- a gathering that also brings together leaders from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia.
At the summit, the leaders will discuss "advancing the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of countries in the region, advancing reforms, promoting regional reconciliation and joint contribution to regional and global stability," according to the U.S. Embassy in Podgorica.
At a dinner with Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic, Prime Minister Dusko Markovic, and other Montenegrin political leaders on August 1, Pence said his trip to the nation of 620,000 is a "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 arrived in the tiny Balkan nation, NATO's newest member, after a visit to Georgia, where he denounced Russia's "aggression" and "occupation" of the Caucasus country's territory.
The U.S. vice president, who began his tour in Estonia on July 30, hopes to soothe allies rattled by Russia's aggression in Ukraine and Georgia as well as its involvement in political movements throughout the region, including one that sought to prevent 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.
Visiting Tbilisi on August 1, Pence reaffirmed Washington's support for Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
"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.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili said during a troop review with Pence at the Vaziani military air base outside Tbilisi that Russian troops remain deployed as occupiers in 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."
With reporting by AFP, dpa, Reuters, civil.ge, and Interfax