By John Irish, Luiza Ilie and Sabine Siebold
BUCHAREST (Reuters) -NATO foreign ministers sought on Wednesday to reassure fragile countries in Russia’s neighbourhood that they fear could be destabilised by Russia as the conflict in Ukraine drags on, squeezing energy supplies and pushing up prices.
The focus of the second day of a NATO foreign ministers meeting was on the Western Balkans region, in particular Bosnia, and on two former Soviet republics, Moldova and Georgia, both of which have breakaway regions occupied by Russian troops.
“The message is clear: that all NATO allies are aware that the beast also wants to take control of the Western Balkans, and we need – by practical, deliverable support to help these countries to survive,” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told Reuters at the end of a two-day NATO meeting in Bucharest.
“But of course, the centre point of gravity for these nations, for Moldova, for Georgia, is of course (the) outcome of this war. This is of existential importance to their territorial integrity, their right in the future to choose their way of life.”
NATO allies on Wednesday pledged to help Moldova, Georgia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, as they face pressure from Russia, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and ministers said.
“If there is one lesson from Ukraine it is that we need to support them now,” Stoltenberg told a news conference.
“They are affected from Russian influence in different ways, but better to support them now rather than see developments that go absolutely in the wrong direction as we saw with the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.”
He provided little detail on what shape that support would take.
For Bosnia, he said: “I think to be able to resist attempts of Russian interference and influence, one of the most important things to be done is to complete formation of government after elections.”
Bosnia has been going through its worst political crisis since the end of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, with Bosnian Serbs challenging state institutions as part of their longtime bid to secede, emboldened by at least tacit support from Russia.
European leaders worry that these countries on the continent’s southern and eastern fringes will lose patience waiting for membership of the European Union and NATO, leaving them open to instability and Russian and Chinese efforts to gain influence.
Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic, invited to join the NATO meeting, said she was concerned about Russia’s intentions for her country.
“We have Russian proxies in our government and division in our country is deep,” she said.
Moldova, wedged between Ukraine and Romania, last week warned its people to brace for a harsh winter as it was facing an “acute” energy crisis that risked stoking popular discontent.
It has also faced an unresolved separatist conflict for 30 years. A contingent of Russian peacekeepers is based in mainly Russian-speaking Transdniestria that borders southwestern Ukraine.
In Georgia, Russian-backed separatists control two breakaway regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia to protect the separatists from what it said was a threat from the Geargian government.
Stoltenberg said there were dozens of NATO trainers in Georgia and that allies had made new commitments for further support.
“The stability in western Balkans is important for peace,” Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Antonio Tajani said. “We need to stop the Russians in the western Balkans, we need more Europe.” EU leaders will hold a summit with Western Balkans leaders in Tirana next week.
(Writing by John Irish, John Chalmers, Ingrid Melander; Editing by Robert Birsel and Peter Graff)