VP Pence says Russia's stance must change before ties improve

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday that relations with Russia would not improve until Moscow changed its stance on Ukraine and withdrew support for "regimes like Iran and Syria and North Korea".

The U.S. Congress voted last week for new sanctions on Russia and, at a news conference in Georgia's capital Tbilisi, Pence said the "lifting of sanctions will require Russia to reverse the actions that caused sanctions to be imposed in the first place".

"Russia's destabilizing activities in Ukraine, their support for rogue regimes like Iran and Syria and North Korea ... their posture has to change," he said at a joint news conference with Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili.

Click through images of Mike Pence hanging out with Koalas in Australia:

Pence said U.S. President Donald Trump would sign the new sanctions on Russia into law this week and said that Trump and Congress were "speaking with a unified voice".

Keeping to previous U.S. administrations' line, Pence also condemned Russia's presence in Georgia.

Moscow, whose annexation of Crimea in 2014 prompted U.S. and EU sanctions, still has troops stationed in Georgia after a 2008 war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, backing Georgia's Abkhazia, a region also controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

Pence also said the U.S. was still behind Georgia's application to become a member of NATO.

"We'll continue to work closely with this prime minister and the government of Georgia broadly to advance the policies that will facilitate becoming a NATO member," he said.

NATO promised Georgia membership in 2008, and three ex-Soviet Baltic nations - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - are already members. Pence has reassured them during this tour that Washington firmly backs NATO's doctrine of collective defense.

In the Estonian capital of Tallinn on Monday, he assured them of U.S. support if they faced aggression from Russia.

Asked about Pence's visit, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said nations had the right to choose their partners.

"The only problem for us, is when this involves the expanding of various alliances and their infrastructure toward our borders. This is a cause of concern for us," Peskov told reporters on a conference call.

During his visit, Pence attended Georgian-American military exercises, which began in Georgia on Sunday. About 2,800 soldiers from the United States, Britain, Germany, Turkey, Ukraine, Slovenia, Armenia and Georgia are taking part in the maneuvers, which will last for two weeks.

On Wednesday, Pence visits Montenegro, which joined NATO in June. The tiny Balkan nation won praise from Washington for joining despite pressure against the move from Russia.

(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Editing by Maayan Lubell)