PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday that the future of Europe's Balkan nations is in the West, reaffirming Washington's commitment to the region as Russia works to assert its historical influence there.
Pence spoke in Montenegro, his third and final stop in a European trip that saw him voicing support for nations pressured by Russia and highlighting U.S. allegiance to its allies overseas. He is the highest-ranking American official to visit the small Adriatic state in 100 years.
"We truly believe the future of the Western Balkans is in the West," Pence said in Podgorica, Montenegro's capital.
The Western Balkans refers to countries in the former Yugoslavia that aspire to or have already joined Western institutions, including the European Union and NATO. It also includes Albania.
Montenegro joined NATO in June, a move that angered Moscow. Russia had considered the country of 620,000 people, with an army of some 2,000 soldiers, its traditional Slavic ally.
Pence, who attended a summit of Balkan leaders Wednesday, praised Montenegro for standing up to Russian pressure. Its accession to NATO, Pence said, is "a sign of the strength of this country 10 years after independence."
"I bring greetings from President Donald Trump, who sent me here as a visible sign of the alliance that we now enjoy through NATO," the vice president said.
Russia is accused of masterminding an attempted coup in Montenegro in October to prevent it from joining NATO. Moscow has denied the allegations.
In his address to the Balkan leaders, on Wednesday, Pence called Russia an "unpredictable country" that wants to destabilize the region.
"As you well know, Russia continues to seek to redraw international borders by force and here in the Western Balkans, Russia has worked to destabilize the region, undermining your democracies and divide you from each other and from the rest of Europe," he said.
"The Western Balkans have the right to decide your own future, and that is your right alone," Pence said.
The Balkan states that are pro-West had feared Trump — who once called NATO an obsolete organization — would leave them to the Russian sphere of influence. Pence's trip appeared intended to alleviate those fears amid the investigations in Washington into Russia's efforts to interfere in last year' presidential election.
"NATO is made up of large countries and small countries, but the U.S. has no small allies and we cherish our new alliance with Montenegro through NATO," Pence said.
During a formal dinner with Montenegro President Filip Vujanovic on Tuesday evening, Pence said Montenegro's "courage, particularly in the face of Russian pressure, inspires the world and I commend you for that."
Serbia is Russia's only remaining ally in the Balkans, although Belgrade formally says it wants to join the European Union. Serbia has been beefing up military ties with Moscow, while also maintaining a partnership relationship with NATO.
Earlier in his tour, Pence pledged support for the former Soviet republic of Georgia and met with the presidents of three NATO countries — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — in Estonia, where he said that "an attack on one of us is an attack on us all."
Georgia and the three Baltic nations were all occupied for nearly five decades by Soviet troops before regaining their independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
AP Writers Jovana Gec and Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.