The FINANCIAL -- Some 2,800 troops from host Georgia, the United States, and six other countries have begun a major military exercise in the South Caucasus nation.
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and other leaders on July 30 said they see the event as a substantial step toward their goal of one day joining NATO, according to RFE/RL.
"These exercises will help Georgia to get closer to NATO standards and to strengthen stability in the whole region," Kvirikashvili said at the opening ceremonies at the Vaziani military base near the capital, Tbilisi.
Georgia's defense minister, Levan Izoria, called the scale of exercises "unprecedented" and said they "make clear the support for Georgia by the NATO member states, especially the U.S."
U.S. officials in the past have spoken favorably toward Georgian hopes of eventually joining NATO, a move Russia vehemently opposes.
At a 2008 summit in Bucharest, NATO leaders made a formal pledge that Georgia "will become a NATO member," but alliance leaders have moved warily toward that goal in the face of Moscow’s opposition.
About 1,600 U.S. troops and 800 Georgian soldiers are taking part in the two-week exercises, dubbed Noble Partner.
Troops from Britain, Germany, Turkey, Ukraine, Slovenia, and Armenia are also participating, with the United States deploying a mechanized company, including several Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and M1A2 Abrams battle tanks.
It is the third time the exercises have been held in Georgia, a country that has seen much-larger rival Russian encroach on its territory since its independence from the Soviet Union.
The Kremlin recognized Georgia's breakaway areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries after fighting a five-day war against Tbilisi in 2008, and Russia maintains thousands of troops in the two regions.
In previous years, Moscow warned that the drills could destabilize the region, a notion that Georgia and the United States have dismissed.
"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 news agency, citing missions such as the current one in Afghanistan.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to visit Georgia on July 31 after a stop in Estonia to meet with Baltic leaders also concerned about Russia’s intensions in their region. He will meet with U.S. troops on August 1.
During his stop in Tallinn, Pence said, "Our message to the Baltic states -- my message when we visit Georgia and Montenegro -- will be the same: To our allies here in Eastern Europe, we are with you, we stand with you on behalf of freedoms."
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and Interfax