Biden to reassure Romania, Cyprus of US support in Ukraine crisis

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Romania and Cyprus aims to reassure European allies of the US commitment to the region in the face of Russia's role in the crisis in Ukraine, a senior administration official said on Monday.

Biden's journey Tuesday through Friday is part of an outreach effort that has included trips to Ukraine, the Baltic states and Poland.

"He is making these trips, these calls, taking these meetings all as a way of showing the United States' continuing solidarity and growing partnership with all of our European partners at a complicated and challenging time in Europe," the official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Russia's annexation of Crimea and its support for separatist movements in the east and south of Ukraine have drawn economic sanctions from the United States and the European Union.

The crisis will be a central theme in Biden's discussions with leaders in Bucharest and Nicosia, the official said. "The vice president's main message will be one of reassurance," the official said.

The United States has so far seen no evidence that Russia has lived up to Russian President Vladimir Putin's pledge to move troops away from the border with Ukraine, he said. "They made similar claims in March and didn't follow through, so we'll be tracking this closely," he said.

In a visit to Bucharest, Biden will also discuss how Romania can play a role in Europe's energy supply and reduce Russia's ability to use the threat of cutting off natural gas supplies as a political weapon, the official said.

Russia supplies 30 per cent of Europe's gas needs and has threatened to halt supplies to Ukraine because of debts, reviving fears of a repeat of supply crises across Europe in 2007 and 2009. Romania is a potential alternative source of gas for Ukraine.

In Cyprus, Biden will seek to strengthen Cypriot commitment to EU sanctions against Russia even though those measures could weigh heavily on Cyprus. "We are aware of and understanding of the exposure of Cyprus to Russian economic activity," the official said.

However, the United States believes that a sanctions regime could be enforced and even strengthened if necessary, which would impose costs on Russia without unduly hurting Cyprus.

Thousands of Russians seeking an island lifestyle, tax benefits and an EU entry point live in Cyprus. It is among EU countries that have expressed reluctance to impose further sanctions on Moscow.

Biden plans to see the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, but details have yet to be worked out.

The island has been divided since a Greek Cypriot coup was followed by a Turkish invasion of the north in 1974. Turkey keeps some 30,000 troops in the north and is the only nation to recognise the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

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