PODGORICA (Reuters) – The future of the Western Balkans is as part of the West, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Wednesday during a visit to Montenegro two months after it joined NATO in defiance of Russia.
Pence arrived in the tiny Adriatic republic on Tuesday on the final leg of a European tour designed to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to the security of Eastern Europe in the face of an emboldened Russia.
Montenegro, an ex-Yugoslav republic with a population of 680,000 and an army of 2,000, joined the NATO military alliance in June, eight months after it accused Russian spies of orchestrating an attempted coup to derail the accession.
Moscow dismissed the accusations as anti-Russian hysteria and warned of retaliation against Montenegro’s “hostile course”.
On Wednesday, Pence underscored Washington’s commitment to Euro-Atlantic ties, a commitment many in Europe have questioned with the rise to power of President Donald Trump who had lambasted NATO as “obsolete” and argued in favor of better relations with Russia.
“We truly believe the future of the Western Balkans is in the West,” Pence told reporters, “and 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.”
On Tuesday evening, speaking at a dinner with Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic, Pence said “your courage particularly in the face of the Russian pressure inspires the world and I commend you for that.”
The West says Russia is increasingly engaged in the former Yugoslavia, particularly among fellow Orthodox Christians in Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia.
Serbia, in particular, has become a focus of Russian attention as it pursues an increasingly difficult balancing act between European Union membership aspirations and a popular affinity for Russia.
Russia had strongly opposed NATO accession for Montenegro, whose deep-water Adriatic ports can support naval operations in the Mediterranean.
Pence arrived in Montenegro from Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008 over the breakaway enclave of South Ossetia. He also visited Estonia, telling leaders of the Baltic states they could count on U.S. support if they faced aggression from Russia.
Pence was due to take part on Wednesday in a summit of the Adriatic Charter, comprising NATO members Montenegro, Croatia and Albania as well as Bosnia and Macedonia….