John Kerry, Lurie Leanca

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, tours the Cricova Winery and cellars Wednesday with Moldovan Prime Minister Lurie Leanca, left. It was the first visit by America's top diplomat to Moldova, a former Soviet republic, in more than 20 years, spurring Russian media to call it part of a U.S. campaign for influence in Eastern Europe. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press / December 4, 2013)

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry paid a whirlwind, four-hour visit to Moldova on Wednesday, the first time America's top diplomat dropped by the former Soviet republic in more than 20 years.

Kerry's unexpected stop followed a decision to skip a planned visit to Ukraine, which has been engulfed in political unrest since President Viktor Yanukovich announced he was shelving plans for association and trade agreements with the European Union.

Moldova and Georgia went through with their pledges to boost economic and political ties with the 28-nation Western bloc in spite of pressure from Russia to join the emerging, Moscow-led Eurasian Union instead.

The apparent diplomatic salute from Washington for Moldova's pivot westward spurred Russian media to deride Kerry's snubbing of Ukraine and glad-handing with Moldovan officials. Commentators called the Moldova visit evidence that Washington was on a campaign to "annex" much of the world.

"Kerry’s current trip, from a geopolitical perspective, is just another in a long series of steps in what is the diplomatic equivalent of what U.S./NATO have been engaged in militarily since the end of the Cold War, namely attempting to establish U.S. influence in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and, in the long term, the world, and at all costs diminish the influence of the Russian Federation," Voice of Russia radio wrote in a commentary on Kerry’s latest diplomatic sweep.

The broadcaster portrayed the EU relationship with Washington as subservient and cast Afghan President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign a post-2014 security pact with the United States and NATO as Karzai's attempt to maintain "some modicum of sovereignty."

Russia's official Itar-Tass news agency reported from Washington that Kerry's decision to drop by Moldova had prompted reporters to "tie up the changes in Kerry’s plans with the suspension of preparations for the signing of an agreement" with the EU and the former Soviet republics.

The news agency said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki "refuted reporters’ supposition" that Moldova had been substituted for Ukraine on Kerry's schedule as a show of support for the tiny ex-Soviet state's step toward EU alignment.

In Brussels, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cautioned that outside forces needed to stay out of the internal political affairs of Ukraine and other Eastern European countries as they decide how to proceed in the post-Cold War world order.

News agencies accompanying Kerry on his trip quoted a senior State Department official as conceding that the purpose of the Moldova visit was to "offer support and encouragement in the face of Russian threats."

Ukraine's decision to stay in Moscow's political and economic orbit was strongly influenced by Russian warnings that if the government in Kiev turned its diplomatic interests to the West it couldn't count on Moscow's help with a looming debt crisis, discounted natural gas or open markets for its exports.

Kerry spent much of his brief time in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, on a tour of one of the country's leading wineries, Cricova, in the company of Prime Minister Lurie Leanca.

Russia announced in September a ban on Moldovan wine and spirits, claiming the products contained "impurities." But the move was seen as pressure on Moldova to scrap its step toward EU association. Moscow similarly choked off imports of Ukrainian chocolates and other goods over the last year in an attempt to deter Kiev from orienting itself toward the EU.

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carol.williams@latimes.com