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Pence warns of ‘Russian pressure’ on last leg of Eastern Europe tour

US Vice President Mike Pence. AFP PHOTO


US Vice President Mike Pence made his final stop Tuesday on an Eastern European tour aimed at reassuring US allies under “Russian pressure”, pledging Donald Trump would sign off on new sanctions against Moscow “soon”.

After a visit to Georgia, where he slammed Russia’s “occupation” of the Caucasus nation’s territory since a brief 2008 war, Pence arrived in NATO’s newest member Montenegro on the Adriatic Sea.

At a dinner with leaders of the Balkan country, which is home to around 620,000 people, Pence said his trip was “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 Sunday, hopes to buoy allies rattled by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its backing of a bloody separatist rebellion in Ukraine.

Montenegro’s accession to NATO in early June — and Georgia’s hopes of joining the military alliance — have stirred fury in Moscow, which considers both countries within its historic sphere of influence.

‘We are with you’
Standing alongside Georgia’s Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili earlier Tuesday, Pence pledged firm US support to the small ally on Russia’s southern flank.

“We are with you, we stand with you,” Pence said, calling the ex-Soviet state a “key strategic partner” for Washington.

The vice president also gave a speech to some 750 troops taking part in joint military drills billed as the largest ever held between the United States and Georgia.

Georgia’s tilt to the West set it on a collision course with Russia that exploded into a conflict over the breakaway region of South Ossetia in 2008.

Moscow officially recognised South Ossetia and another rebel province Abkhazia as independent after routing Georgia’s forces and moved thousands of its troops into the regions.

Pence said the “US strongly condemns the occupation” that “sees Russian tanks parked on Georgian soil”.

He insisted again that Trump is gearing up to approve new punitive measures against Russia that have already pushed battered ties with Moscow still lower.

“President Trump will sign the sanctions bill soon,” Pence told a press conference.

The US Senate on Thursday approved a package of tough additional sanctions against Russia over alleged meddling in last year’s election and its annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine.

The White House has said Trump will now approve the bill but has not set a timeframe.

Balkan leaders gather
On Wednesday, Pence will attend the Adriatic Charter summit in Montenegro’s capital Podgorica, which will also bring together leaders from Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia and Slovenia.

Washington said in April there were credible reports that Moscow had backed an alleged coup attempt in Podgorica on the eve of Montenegro’s election in October last year.

Montenegrin authorities also allege that “Russian state bodies” were involved in the conspiracy in a bid to prevent the country from joining NATO, but Moscow strongly denies any involvement.

Among those on trial over the murky affair are two leaders of Montenegro’s pro-Russian opposition, and two Russians being tried in absentia. No weapons intended for use in the alleged coup have ever been presented.

In Estonia on Monday, Pence insisted that a retaliatory move taken by the Kremlin, to cut the US diplomatic mission in Russia the face of the looming sanctions, would not lessen Washington’s commitment to its allies.

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