Posts Tagged ‘Estonia’

Putin Attends Military Drills That Worry Russia’s Neighbors

September 18, 2017

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin is attending military maneuvers that have worried his country’s neighbors.

Putin, accompanied by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, attended the Zapad (West) 2017 drills on Monday at the Luzhsky range in western Russia, just over 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) east of Estonia’s border.

Russian and Belarusian troops are participating in the exercises that started last week.

Some nervous NATO members, including the Baltic states and Poland, have criticized an alleged lack of transparency about the war games and questioned Moscow’s intentions.

Russia and Belarus say the exercises, which run until Wednesday, involve 5,500 Russian and 7,200 Belarusian troops. Some NATO countries have estimated that up to 100,000 troops could be involved.

Moscow has rejected the claim and insists the maneuvers don’t threaten anyone.


Russia’s Zapad War Games Unnerve the West

September 13, 2017

TALLINN/VILNIUS — From planes, radars and ships in the Baltics, NATO officials say they are watching Russia’s biggest war games since 2013 with “calm and confidence”, but many are unnerved about what they see as Moscow testing its ability to wage war against the West.

NATO believes the exercises, officially starting on Thursday in Belarus, the Baltic Sea, western Russia and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, are already underway. It says they are larger than Moscow has publicized, numbering some 100,000 troops, and involve firing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.

Codenamed Zapad or “West”, NATO officials say the drills will simulate a conflict with the U.S.-led alliance intended to show Russia’s ability to mass large numbers of troops at very short notice in the event of a conflict.

“NATO remains calm and vigilant,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week during a visit to an Estonian army base where British troops have been stationed since March.

But Lithuania’s Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis was less sanguine, voicing widely-felt fears that the drills risk triggering an accidental conflict or could allow Moscow to leave troops in neighboring Belarus.

“We can’t be totally calm. There is a large foreign army massed next to Lithuanian territory,” he told Reuters.

Some Western officials including the head of the U.S. Army in Europe, Gen. Ben Hodges, have raised concerns that Russia might use the drills as a “Trojan horse” to make incursions into Poland and Russian-speaking regions in the Baltics.

The Kremlin firmly rejects any such plans. Russia says some 13,000 troops from Russia and Belarus will be involved in the Sept. 14-20 drills, below an international threshold that requires large numbers of outside observers.

NATO will send three experts to so-called ‘visitor days’ during the exercises, but a NATO official said these were no substitute for meeting internationally-agreed norms at such exercises that include talking to soldiers and briefings.

Moscow says it is the West that threatens stability in eastern Europe because the U.S.-led NATO alliance has put a 4,000-strong multinational force in the Baltics and Poland.

Wrong-footed by Moscow in the recent past, with Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its intervention in Syria’s war in 2015, NATO is distrustful of the Kremlin’s public message.

In Crimea, Moscow proved a master of “hybrid warfare”, with its mix of cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns and use of Russian and local forces without insignia.

One senior European security official said Zapad would merge manoeuvres across Russia’s four western military districts in a “complex, multi-dimensional aggressive, anti-NATO exercise”.

“It is all smoke and mirrors,” the official said, adding that the Soviet-era Zapad exercises that were revived in 1999 had included simulated nuclear strikes on Europe.

NATO officials say they have been watching Russia’s preparations for months, including the use of hundreds of rail cars to carry tanks and other heavy equipment into Belarus.

As a precaution, the U.S. Army has moved 600 paratroopers to the Baltics during Zapad and has taken over guardianship of the airspace of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which lack capable air forces and air defense systems.


Russia’s military show of force raises some uncomfortable questions for the alliance because NATO cannot yet mass large numbers of troops quickly, despite the United States’ military might, NATO officials and diplomats said.

NATO, a 29-nation defense pact created in 1949 to deter the Soviet threat, has already begun its biggest modernization since the Cold War, sending four battalions to the Baltics and Poland, setting up an agile, high-readiness spearhead force, and developing its cyberspace defenses.

But NATO has deliberately taken a slowly-slowly approach to its military build-up to avoid being sucked into a new arms race, even as Russia has stationed anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles in Kaliningrad, the Black Sea and Syria.

“The last thing we want is a military escalation with Russia,” said one senior NATO official involved in military planning, referring to Zapad.

In the event of any potential Russian incursion into the Baltics or Poland, NATO’s new multinational forces would quickly need large reinforcements. But a 40,000-strong force agreed in 2015 is still being developed, officials say.

Lithuania’s Karoblis said he hoped to see progress by the next summit of NATO leaders in July 2018.

Baltic politicians want more discretion given to NATO to fight any aggressor in the event of an attack, without waiting for the go-ahead from allied governments.

During Zapad, NATO is taking a low-key approach by running few exercises, including an annual sniper exercise in Lithuania. Only non-NATO member Sweden is holding a large-scale drill.

NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe James Everard told Reuters there was no need to mirror Zapad. “It’s not a competition,” he said during a visit to NATO forces in Latvia.

(Additional reporting by Gederts Gelzis in Latvia; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Nato chief: world is at its most dangerous point in a generation

September 9, 2017

Jens Stoltenberg warns of converging threats as Russia mobilises estimated 100,000 troops on EU’s borders

By  in Tapa
The Guardian

Image may contain: 5 people, people standing

Secretary general Jens Stoltenberg visits Nato battle group soldiers at Tapa military base in Estonia. Photograph: Raigo Pajula/AFP/Getty Images

The world is more dangerous today than it has been in a generation, the head of Nato has said, days before the mobilisation of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops on the EU’s eastern borders, and as a nuclear crisis grows on the Korean peninsula.

Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of the military alliance, said the sheer number of converging threats was making the world increasingly perilous.

Asked in a Guardian interview whether he had known a more dangerous time in his 30-year career, Stoltenberg said: “It is more unpredictable, and it’s more difficult because we have so many challenges at the same time.

“We have proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in North Korea, we have terrorists, instability, and we have a more assertive Russia,” Stoltenberg said during a break from visiting British troops stationed in Estonia. “It is a more dangerous world.”

From next Thursday, over six days, Russian and Belarusian troops will take part in what is likely to be Moscow’s largest military exercise since the cold war. An estimated 100,000 soldiers, security personnel and civilian officials, will be active around the Baltic Sea, western Russia, Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, without the supervision required under international agreement.

On the other side of the world, in the face of local protests, the South Korean government has deployed the controversial US Thaad missile defence system as it looked to counter potential future attacks from North Korea, which recently launched a ballistic missile over Japan, threatened the US Pacific territory of Guam and tested a possible thermonuclear device.

Donald Trump has threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on the North Koreans should further threats be made against the US, and kept up the threat on Thursday, saying he is building up US military power.

“It’s been tens of billions of dollars more in investment. And each day new equipment is delivered – new and beautiful equipment, the best in the world, the best anywhere in the world, by far,” Trump said. “Hopefully we’re not going to have to use it on North Korea. If we do use it on North Korea, it will be a very sad day for North Korea.”

Trump has ruled out talks with Pyongyang for the time being and Washington’s diplomatic focus is now on efforts to secure agreement at the United Nations for much tighter economic measures, including an oil embargo and possibly a naval blockade.

A South Korean marine participating in an exercise this week.
 A South Korean marine participating in an exercise this week. Photograph: Handout/South Korean Defense Ministry vi

Speaking during his visit to the Estonian military base in Tapa, a former Soviet Union airstrip about 75 miles (120km) from the border with Russia, Stoltenberg was coy when asked if he backed the US president’s bellicose threats to Pyongyang, blamed by some for exacerbating the current situation in south-east Asia.

“If I started to speculate about potential military options I would only add to the uncertainty and difficulty of the situation so I think my task is not to be contribute to that. I will support efforts to find a political, negotiated solution,” he said.

Pushed on whether he could even envision a military solution to the crisis in Korea, Stoltenberg said: “I think the important thing now is to look into how we can create a situation where we can find a political solution to the crisis.

“At the same time I fully understand and support the military message that has been implemented in the region by South Korea and to some extent Japan, as they have the right to defend themselves. They have a right to respond when they see these very aggressive actions. I also support the presence of US troops and capabilities in Korea.”

Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister whose 10 years in power were marked for his success in improving Norway’s environmental footprint, took over the role of Nato secretary general in 2014, forming a close working relationship with Barack Obama.

Soon after Trump’s election last year, however, in response to suggestions that the White House might back away from Nato, Stoltenberg made a pointed intervention highlighting the lives lost by the alliance’s members coming to the aid of the US after the 9/11 attacks. Trump had described Nato as obsolete during his election campaign.

In May, Stoltenberg took on the role of placater-in-chief after the US president used the occasion of the opening of Nato’s new building in Brussels, and the unveiling of a memorial to 9/11, to castigate 23 of the 29 Nato members for not spending enough on defence. A number of leaders were visibly startled by the nature and timing of the speech.

Asked this week whether Trump was the ideal person to unpick the current fraught security situation, Stoltenberg insisted the 29 Nato members were united within the alliance. “Donald Trump is the elected president of the United States,” he said. “And Nato is a collective alliance of 29 democracies. And that’s part of democracy, that different political leaders are elected.”

Donald Trump after pushing the Montenegrin prime minister, Dusko Markovic, aside as they walked through the Nato headquarters in Brussels in May.
 Donald Trump at the Nato headquarters in Brussels in May. He had just shoved the Montenegrin prime minister aside. Photograph: Etienne Laurent/EPA

He said he did not believe there was an imminent threat to Nato members, and that an increase in defence spending had strengthened the alliance in recent years.

Stoltenberg has completed a tour of the four battle groups stationed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, forming the Nato advanced forces defending the eastern borders.

Stoltenberg said the troops’ “defensive” mobilisation was a message to Russia that an attack on one Nato ally was an attack on all, and that he remained confident of the security of eastern Europe. But he expressed concern at Moscow’s imminent failure to live up to its international obligations for exercises involving more than 13,000 troops to be open to observers, including overflights. Some Baltic states estimate that about 100,000 Russian troops will be involved in this year’s exercise and Poland claims the Kremlin has requisitioned more than 4,000 train carriages to move military personnel west.

“Russia has said it is below 13,000. They briefed that on the Nato-Russia council a few weeks ago,” Stoltenberg said. “That was useful but at the same time we have seen when Russia says that an exercise has less than 13,000 troops that’s not always the case. We have seen that in Zapad 2009 and 2013 – the two previous Zapad exercises. There were many more troops participating.”

Stoltenberg said Nato had always offered up its exercises to scrutiny, “while Russia has not opened any exercise to open observation since the end of the cold war”.


EU countries urge caution on Turkey membership talks

September 7, 2017


© AFP/File / by Damon WAKE | Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have clashed over Turkey’s EU bid

TALLINN (AFP) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s call to end Turkey’s EU membership talks met resistance Thursday from many of her European partners, who warned against hasty action against a crucial ally.Merkel said during an election debate on Sunday that she would ask the EU to terminate Turkey’s accession talks, in a sharp escalation of an already bitter diplomatic spat.

A crackdown in Turkey in the wake of a failed coup last year has soured relations with the EU, and last week European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned Ankara was “withdrawing from Europe by giant steps”.

But on Thursday, Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser, whose country holds the bloc’s rotating presidency, said no decision would be made on the matter before a commission assessment of Turkey’s bid, expected early next year.

“I do not expect the European Union to make any decisions in that regard during this year,” he said at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pursued a purge of opponents since the coup in which which more than 50,000 people have been arrested and almost three times that number have lost their jobs, including teachers, judges, soldiers and police officers.

A dozen German journalists and activists have also been arrested, fraying relations with Berlin yet further.

– ‘No! No! No!’ –

In December, EU member states agreed that no new accession chapters would be opened until Ankara reversed course, but Turkey remains an important player for Europe on a number of key issues, not least the migrant crisis.

French President Emmanuel Macron told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini on Thursday he wanted to “avoid a rupture” with Turkey, which he called an “essential partner”.

Echoing this measured tone, Mikser said the EU should “tread very carefully” with Turkey, which is also an important member of NATO.

Most EU member states are also part of NATO.

“While discussing Turkey’s status as a candidate country we should also discuss the future relationship in all its aspects, and not make any hasty decisions without looking at these things comprehensively,” Mikser said.

Lithuania’s Linas Linkevicius gave an even more emphatic response, barking “No! No! No!” when asked if accession talks should be ended.

And Finland’s Foreign Minister Timo Soini added his voice to the calls for calm, saying dialogue was more useful than cutting ties.

“We know that there is problems with human rights in Turkey, but I am not in favour to cut the negotiations, because I think if we don’t talk with each other this is not a very constructive way to go forward,” he said.

– Election gambit –

The EU and Turkey last year signed a deal which has helped stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants into Greece.

Ankara has threatened to rescind the pact at times when tensions have flared with Brussels over concerns of human rights abuses.

Turkey began formal membership talks in 2005 after years of resistance from some EU members such as France, which were wary of admitting a largely Muslim country.

Progress has been slow and the negotiations came to a virtual halt last year after Turkey began the crackdown following the coup.

Merkel’s remarks on Sunday drew a typically robust response from Erdogan, who compared them to “Nazism”, but several European figures have suggested looking on her call in the light of her re-election battle.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said further discussions would follow the September 24 election in Germany, echoing comments by EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini earlier this week.

Mogherini said that geography and history made Turkey and the EU inescapable partners and the two sides should focus on ways to cooperate constructively.

“I would suggest that we look beyond what is said in the electoral campaigns both in Turkey and in the European Union,” she said at a strategic forum in Bled.

by Damon WAKE

Russia Gears Up for Major War Games, Neighbors Watch With Unease

August 31, 2017

MOSCOW — Russia is preparing to hold large-scale military exercises it says will be of a purely defensive nature, amid concerns in neighboring nations that the drills may be used as a precursor for an invasion.

A total of around 12,700 servicemen will take part in the war games, code named Zapad 2017, which will be held on Sept. 14-20 in western Russia, Belarus and Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad. These will include around 5,500 Russian troops.

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the U.S. Army’s top general in Europe, told Reuters last month that U.S. allies in eastern Europe and Ukraine were worried the exercises could be a “Trojan horse” aimed at leaving behind military equipment brought into Belarus.

Image result for Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, photos

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges

This week Russia’s Defence Ministry rejected what it said were false allegations it might use the drills as a springboard to launch invasions of Poland, Lithuania or Ukraine.

The following graphic shows the breakdown of the troops and military hardware, including warships and aircraft, to be used in the exercises, according to data provided by Russia’s Defence Ministry. It also shows the locations of the drills.

For a graphic on Russia’s Zapad war games, click:

(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Mark Heinrich)


US beefs up Baltic air patrol as Russia war games loom

August 29, 2017


© AFP | The US F-15 jet fighters were sent to the Baltic region two weeks before the start of massive military exercises in Russia and Belarus, which Moscow and Minsk say are “purely defensive”

VILNIUS (AFP) – The United States on Tuesday sent extra jet fighters to patrol the skies over Baltic states to reinforce its NATO allies as Russia gears up for major major military drills, Lithuania’s defence ministry said.Seven US F-15 fighter jets landed at the country’s northern Siauliai military air base, where NATO member Poland ran patrols using four jets over the last four-month rotation.

The beefed up contingent arrived two weeks ahead of massive military exercise “Zapad 2017” (“West”) in neighbouring Russia and Belarus.

Lithuanian intelligence has warned that the “exercise scenario will simulate an armed conflict with NATO” but Moscow on Tuesday insisted they would be “purely defensive” and not directed against any specific enemy.

According to Russian Defence Minister Alexander Fomin, the drills will involve 12,700 troops, but critics, Lithuania included, claim there could be as many as 100,000.

Belarus’ military chief of staff Oleg Belokonev indicated Tuesday the exercises’ scenario involves an assumed threat from neighbours to the west and said that the number of troops participating will be “13,800 servicemen.”

NATO has been guarding Baltic skies since 2004, when Lithuania and fellow Baltic states Latvia and Estonia joined the defence alliance but lacked the air power to monitor their own airspace.

Last week, NATO jets were scrambled four times to intercept Russian planes approaching Baltic countries’ airspace, including an Il-22 bomber and seven Su-27 fighter jets, according to Lithuania’s defence ministry.

NATO has also deployed about 1,000 soldiers in each of the Baltic states and Poland in response to growing concern over Russian intentions after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

NATO chief demands Russian ‘transparency’ on war games

August 25, 2017


© AFP/File | A soldier fires a portable air defense rocket during international war games Russia hosted in 2015.
WARSAW (AFP) – NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Friday urged the Kremlin to comply with rules on transparency as it gears up for huge military exercises along the alliance’s eastern flank next month.The drill, named Zapad 2017 (“West”), has stoked fresh alarm in NATO-members Poland and the Baltic states as a more assertive Russia pushes back against what it sees as the alliance’s unjustified expansion into eastern Europe.

“I call on Russia to ensure compliance with its obligations under the OSCE Vienna Document, because predictability, transparency is especially important when we have increased military activity along our borders,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Warsaw at a joint press conference with Poland’s right-wing Prime Minister Beata Szydlo.


The Vienna Document requires all sides to provide advance information about exercises and allow observer teams so as to avoid any dangerous misunderstandings.

The NATO chief had much stronger words for Moscow on Thursday in Italy when he said that “the aggressive behaviour of Russia has undermined stability and security in Europe.”

He vowed on Friday that the alliance would “be watching very closely as this (Zapad) exercise takes place next month” in Belarus, which borders alliance members Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Under Vienna Document provisions, manoeuvres involving more than 13,000 troops must be notified in advance and be open to observers.

Belarus has said Zapad 2017 involves 12,700 troops, just under the limit, but Lithuania and other critics claim there could be as many as 100,000.

– ‘Centre of gravity’ –

According to NATO, Belarus has invited military liaison missions to attend a special visitors day on its territory, with two alliance experts due to go along.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported this week that the Belarusian defence ministry had invited “observers from seven countries, namely Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Sweden, and Norway … to this (Zapad 2017) event.”

Russia has dismissed concerns over the exercises, with Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin telling the Rossiya 24 news channel that “I do not see any reason to be afraid. Everything, as usual, will be open and friendly.”

Stoltenberg was due to visit later Friday a US-led NATO battalion based in the northeastern Polish town of Orzysz.

The multinational unit is one of four deployed by NATO this spring to Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in order to reassure its easternmost allies unsettled by Russia’s frequent military exercises near the region in the wake of its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

General Ben Hodges, commander of US ground forces in Europe, said last week that “Poland has become for the United States Army the centre of gravity for everything that we’re doing in terms of deterrence” regarding Russia.

Aside from leading the NATO force in Orzysz, the US Army set up a new European headquarters in Poland in May to command some 6,000 of its troops deployed in NATO and Pentagon operations across the alliance’s eastern flank since the beginning of the year.


NATO accuses Russia of undermining stability in Europe

August 24, 2017


© AFP/File | NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “The aggressive behaviour of Russia has undermined stability and security in Europe”
ROME (AFP) – NATO accused Russia Thursday of “undermining stability and security in Europe” through its “aggressive behaviour”.”We have worked actively to forge a strategic partnership with Russia” since the Cold War, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told a defence and peace meeting in Italy.

“However, the aggressive behaviour of Russia has undermined stability and security in Europe,” he added.

The 2014 incursion of pro-Russian forces into eastern Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea have strained ties with the west to the limit.

In response, NATO has bolstered its presence in eastern European countries that are now allies but were once ruled from Moscow.

Stoltenberg described Russia’s “illegal annexation of Crimea” as “the first time since World War II that a European nation had taken the territory of another country by force.

“Russia continues to destabilise Eastern Ukraine. It is a conflict in which nearly 10,000 Ukrainians have been killed and this has changed the security context enormously,” he said.

But the NATO chief said he was not looking for a confrontation with Russia and that he strongly believed in dialogue.

The alliance has deployed multinational battalions to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland as NATO seeks to reassure them they will not be abandoned in any fresh crisis.

The Latest: 2 Danes among injured in Barcelona van attack — Spanish police make another arrest

August 18, 2017

The Associated Press

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The Latest on terror attacks in Spain (all times local):

9 a.m.

Danish authorities have confirmed that there are two Danes among those “lightly wounded” following the deadly van attack on tourists in the Spanish city of Barcelona.

Leaders in the Nordic and Baltic region are rushing to condemn the attack. Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said he was “horrified by reports from Barcelona,” while his Danish counterpart Lars Loekke Rasmussen said Europe has “again been attacked by terror.”

In Norway, Prime Minister Erna Solberg called it “a cowardly attack,” her Estonian colleague Juri Ratas called it “brutal” and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said it was “despicable.


8:50 a.m.

Catalonia authorities say a third person has been arrested in connection with the Barcelona van attack that killed at least 13 people.

Catalonia Interior Minister Joaquim Forn told Catalunya Radio on Friday that the suspect was taken into custody in the northern Catalan town of Ripoll.

On Thursday, one of the two suspects detained in the hours after the Las Ramblas attack was arrested in Ripoll and another in Alcanar.

Police said neither of the two people detained Thursday was the driver of the white van that plowed down pedestrians. The driver escaped the scene on foot.

Footage has emerged of panic on Barcelona’s streets after Thursday’s van attack in the city’s historic Las Ramblas district. Authorities say one person is dead, and dozens have been injured. (Aug. 17)


8 a.m.

French officials say 26 French nationals were among the dozens injured in a van attack in Barcelona, and Australia says one of its citizens is unaccounted for.

Spanish authorities previously said the dead and injured are from 24 countries. The attack involved a van that veered onto a busy promenade in downtown Barcelona and struck pedestrians. Thirteen people were killed and 100 injured.

One of the dead was Belgian, and Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told reporters: “We are concerned for one Australian who remains unaccounted for.”

France’s Foreign Ministry said Friday at least 11 of the French nationals who were hurt had serious injuries.

Australia also says three of its citizens were injured, one seriously. Two with slight injuries were Taiwanese. A Greek woman and a Hong Kong resident were also hurt.


The item timed at 8 a.m. has been corrected to show that 26 French nationals were injured, not 25.

Pence declares future of Western Balkans ‘in the West’

August 2, 2017


© AFP | US Vice President Mike Pence speaks to the press in Podgorica, Montenegro, on August 2, 2017
PODGORICA (MONTENEGRO) (AFP) – US Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday that the future of the Western Balkans lay “in the West”, on the last leg of a tour aimed at reassuring Eastern European allies worried by Russia.After visiting Baltic state Estonia and the Caucasus nation of Georgia, Pence arrived on Tuesday in NATO’s newest member Montenegro on the Adriatic Sea.

Pence’s tour is a show of support for allies in the region rattled by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its backing of a bloody separatist rebellion in Ukraine.

Montenegro’s accession to NATO on June 5 — and Georgia’s hopes of joining the military alliance — have stirred fury in Moscow, which considers both countries to be in its historic sphere of influence.

“We truly believe the future of the Western Balkans is in the West,” Pence told reporters in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, alongside Prime Minister Dusko Markovic.

The vice president hailed Montenegro’s accession to NATO as a “historic achievement” and pledged US commitment to strengthening ties with the region.

On Tuesday in Tbilisi, Pence slammed Russia’s “occupation” of part of Georgia’s territory since a brief 2008 war, and pledged President Donald Trump would sign off on new sanctions against Moscow “soon”.

Later at dinner in Montenegro, 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.

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 denies any involvement.

Pence is attending the Adriatic Charter Summit in Podgorica on Wednesday afternoon, which also brings together leaders from Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia and Slovenia.

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

Pence told a press conference in Georgia on Tuesday that Trump would sign the bill “soon”, although the White House has not set a timeframe.

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.