“America has no small allies, only strong allies,” said US Vice President Mike Pence when he arrived in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica on the final leg of his tour of three small East European nations — Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro.
The visit took place amid worsening relations between Washington and Moscow, and just days after US Congress voted overwhelmingly in favour of tougher sanctions on Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin swiftly responded by expelling 755 US diplomats.
All three countries visited by Pence between July 30 and August 2 are potential flashpoints on the increasingly tense borderline between Russia and the West. Georgia has lost large parts of its territory to Russian-backed separatist forces; Montenegro recently joined Nato despite heavy pressure from Moscow and a suspected coup attempt orchestrated by Russia; and Estonia along with the other Baltic states is among the most vulnerable Nato members given its long border with Russia and substantial ethnic Russian minority.
“By visiting Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro, US Vice President Mike Pence hopes to reassure nervous allies on the front lines of the Russia-West standoff, while simultaneously highlighting Moscow's pressure points,” says a comment from think-tank Stratfor published on August 2. “As the United States and Russia ramp up their battle for influence in the borderlands, each of these countries and their broader regions will be key to shaping the standoff in the coming months.”
Throughout the visit, Pence sought to reassure local political leaders that they have US support, and that Washington will abide by Nato’s Article 5, which stipulates that Nato member states must come to the aid of fellow members in case of attack. The US stance had previously been called into question, much to the alarm of countries across the CEE region, when Donald Trump refused to confirm he would abide by his country’s Nato commitments during the 2016 presidential campaign in the US.
This point was made explicitly by Pence in Tallinn on July 31, when he “highlighted the United States’ unwavering commitment to the security of the Baltic states and to our collective defense obligations under Nato’s Article 5,” said a US State Department statement.
Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas stressed that the US is “indispensable to ensuring the security of our immediate neighbourhood as well as all of Europe”.
In addition to Ratas, Pence met Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid and her counterparts from Lithuania and Latvia, Dalia Grybauskaite and Raimonds Vejonis. All three Baltic countries have been rattled by the recent buildup of the Russian military close to their borders and in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, situated on the Baltic coast between Lithuania and Poland.
Highlighting the issue, not long after Pence left Tallinn for Tbilisi, Nato jets reportedly intercepted three Russian military aircraft near Estonian airspace. A Nato spokesman told CNN that two Spanish F-18 jets assigned to Nato’s Baltic Air Policing mission on August 1 had intercepted non-Nato military aircraft. The aircraft were later identified as two Russian MiG-31 fighter jets and an AN-26 transport plane by the Finnish airforce.
The US vice president had a similar message for the authorities in Georgia, which unlike Estonia and Montenegro is not a Nato member state, although it is keen to join.
Pence reiterated US support for Georgia’s bid for membership of Nato, though he did not provide details about when the country could expect to join. Allowing Georgia to enter Nato would be seen as a huge provocation in Moscow and it would also put Nato members in the position of having to defend Georgia militarily should conflict again break out around the two Russian-backed separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
During his visit, Pence expressed support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, condemning Russia for occupying the two Georgian regions (in fact the two breakaway regions have embraced Russia’s financial and military support).
Nonetheless, his messages were welcomed by Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili. “We heard very clear messages to Georgia. In terms of supporting Georgia's territorial integrity, foreign policy priorities, and the country's overall empowerment, America has always been and will be Georgia's top strategic partner, and this visit is yet another demonstration of that,” Kvirikashvili told a joint press conference, according to a Georgian government statement.
Montenegro, the final stop on Pence’s tour, became a Nato member earlier this year. He arrived in Podgorica on August 1 in advance of the Adriatic Charter summit, which brings together countries from the Western Balkans to help them integrate into Nato.
Stratfor analysts describe the choice of Montenegro as “highly symbolic” given its recent entrance to Nato in the face of Russian hostility.
Russia had fiercely resisted the accession of Montenegro — once a close ally and economic partner — to the western alliance. Russian agents are alleged to have been behind a coup attempt in Montenegro, which was thwarted on the day of the October 2016 general election in the Balkan country. Moscow is also believed to finance the opposition Democratic Front in Montenegro, which held several anti-Nato demonstrations that erupted into clashes with police in 2015. Both are seen as attempts by Russia to hinder Montenegro’s path to Nato accession by fostering instability in the country.
While Montenegro has now secured its membership, this is not expected to be the end of struggle between the US and EU on the one hand, and Russia on the other, for supremacy in the Balkans. “The Russia-West standoff can be expected to intensify in the Balkans, as Moscow seeks to undermine Nato aspirant states such as Macedonia by supporting any anti-Albanian movements in the country and by building security ties and leverage over more Russia-friendly countries in the region such as Serbia,” Stratfor forecasts.
“Russia is stepping back into the western Balkans, smelling the vulnerabilities of people and institutions, high levels of public corruption, the dividing national politics, and scepticism about a better future. Kremlin is using a mix of hybrid tools to exploit regional stereotypes, ethnic tensions, and unresolved legacies of the conflicts of the 1990s,” wrote Professor Valbona Zeneli, programme director, Black Sea and Eurasia at the George C. Marshall Center’s College of International and Security Studies in a paper published by the Atlantic Community think-tank in June.
“The main objective is to weaken the relations of the western Balkans with the West, hinder the Euro-Atlantic enlargement process aiming to create a "non alignment zone" in the region,” Zeneli added.