U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is on a tour of Central Europe, warned on February 12 that Russian President Vladimir Putin poses a threat to democracies worldwide.
Pompeo was speaking in Slovakia's capital, Bratislava, his latest stop aimed at curbing Russian and Chinese influence in the region.
"Vladimir Putin is intent on undermining democracies throughout the world, make no mistake about it. We should be very candid about that," Pompeo told journalism students.
He later cautioned about the "the need to guard against China's economic and other efforts to create dependence and manipulate your political system."
Pompeo, the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Slovakia in 14 years, told President Andrej Kiska: "It's been too long since America has been deeply engaged here."
He also met with former political prisoners at a memorial to the so-called Gate of Freedom on the border with Austria, where 400 people were killed from 1945 to 1989 as they tried to reach the West through the Iron Curtain.
"Where barbed wire and armed guards stood, today people, goods, and information cross freely," Pompeo said.
"The United States has stood with the people of Slovakia as a friend, as a partner...for the past 30 years, and we will continue to stand with you in the decades to come.
"On behalf of the United States I'm proud to stand in union with the people of Slovakia and Europe in recommitting to a future that is more prosperous, more secure and, most of all, great," he said.
Kiska, a staunch liberal, called Washington an "important partner and ally."
Slovakia's experience under Soviet domination gives it "a special appreciation for the aggressive role Russia continues to play in the region," Pompeo later said at a news conference with Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak.
"We see this now very clearly in Ukraine, where Russia’s illegal annexation continues and its war in the east is at almost the five-year mark."
Pompeo is in Slovakia on the second leg of his European tour that began in Hungary, and will take him to Poland, Belgium, and Iceland.
During his visit to Budapest on February 11, Pompeo met with Hungary's right-wing populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, to stress the importance of promoting democracy and the rule of law.
Washington sees those issues as key to countering Russian and Chinese moves to sow discord in the European Union and NATO.
At a joint news conference with Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjart, Pompeo raised concerns over ties between Hungary and Russia, and Budapest's contract with Chinese company Huawei to develop the country's fifth-generation mobile network.
"We must not let [Russian President Vladimir] Putin drive wedges between friends in NATO," Pompeo told a joint news conference.
He pointed to Central Europe's reliance on Russian energy, particularly in Hungary.
Szijjarto welcomed Pompeo's calls for closer ties, but also brushed off the criticism on relations with Russia and China.
"There is an enormous hypocrisy and political correctness in the European political arena," he said.
On February 12 in Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called U.S. warning against using Huawei equipment "groundless," as the Chinese telecom giant faces espionage fears in a growing number of countries.