TBILISI (Reuters) – The Georgian army began two weeks of military exercises with the United States and other partner countries on Sunday, a day before U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visits the ex-Soviet nation.
About 2,800 soldiers from the United States, Britain, Germany, Turkey, Ukraine, Slovenia, Armenia and Georgia were taking part in the maneuvers, with Washington dispatching an entire mechanized company including several Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks.
Georgia’s Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said the drills were an important event for the South Caucasus republic.
“These exercises will help Georgia to get closer to NATO standards and to strengthen stability in the whole region,” Kvirikashvili said at the opening ceremony on Sunday.
The “Noble Partner” exercises are being held in Georgia for the third time. Russian officials had not commented on the event yet, but in previous years Moscow warned that drills could destabilize the region, a charge denied by Georgian officials and U.S. diplomats.
“This exercise is not directed against any country. It’s about to help Georgia to grow its capacity to interoperate in international operations,” U.S. Ambassador Ian Kelly told Reuters.
Russia and Georgia fought a war in August 2008 over the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia. Moscow continues to garrison troops there and to support another breakaway region, Abkhazia.
The exercises were being run out of the Vaziani military base near Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.
Russian forces used to be based there until they withdrew at the start of the last decade under the terms of a European arms reduction agreement.
Pence plans to attend the drills and address participants on Tuesday.
The United States has spoken favorably of the idea that Georgia might one day join NATO, something Russia firmly opposes.
Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Dale Hudson