CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) — Four U.S. senators visited Moldova Thursday to lend support to the former Soviet republic's move toward the European Union, while Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Ukraine to end a blockade of the country's separatist province Trans-Dniester.
U.S. Sens. John McCain, John Barrasso, John Hoeven and Ron Johnson met with Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca to discuss energy security and how to attract U.S. investments to Moldova.
McCain said the U.S. officials are preparing "much tougher sanctions against Putin and are ready to apply them if he doesn't stop the provocations in the region."
He said he did not think it was likely Russia would invade Moldova, but said it could not be ruled out.
"We will never ever, ever allow Russia and (President) Vladimir Putin to deprive the people of Moldova of their liberty and right to determine their own future," he told students at the Academy of Economic Studies.
"Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country. In fact, Russia is a gas station run by a Mafioso," he said.
Earlier Thursday, Putin urged Ukraine to reopen trade and transportation routes into Trans-Dniester. Russia says Ukraine has blocked transport routes to Trans-Dniester, which has run its own affairs without international recognition since 1992.
"We are concerned about Vladimir Putin's statements today. They are not productive, they are not helpful and they us even greater cause concerns about his ambition for countries in the region and their territorial integrity," McCain said.
The region, located on the border with Ukraine, has hosted Russian troops and there have been fears that Russia could use it as a bridgehead for invading southern Ukraine.