The FINANCIAL -- U.S. Vice President Mike Pence pledged Washington's support to Georgian leaders as he met with Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili in Tbilisi.
“President [Donald] Trump asked me to extend greetings to you this morning and to say we are with you,” Pence said on August 1.
“We see Georgia as a key strategic partner and stand by your territorial integrity and your aspirations to become a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” he added.
Georgia has seen Russian encroachment on its territory and has expressed hopes of joining the Western military alliance.
The Kremlin recognized Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries after fighting a five-day war against Tbilisi in 2008. Russia maintains thousands of troops in the two regions.
At an official dinner in the Georgian capital late on July 31, Pence said, “We stand with you, for your freedom and for our shared values.”
Kvirikashvili said the United States “has a dedicated friend in Georgia, a stable geopolitical ally, and a strategic partner.”
In comments released earlier by the Georgian government, Kvirikashvili described Pence's visit as "an important milestone in the bilateral relationship as we work to further strengthen security, economic, and trade cooperation between our two countries."
Pence was greeted by thousands of people when he arrived in Tbilisi, where he met on August 1 with leaders of the Georgian opposition, according to RFE/RL.
The vice president was also planning to attend NATO joint military exercises being conducted in Georgia. About 800 Georgian and 1,600 U.S. troops are taking part in the Noble Partner 2017 drills there.
Pence arrived in Tbilisi from Estonia, where he reaffirmed Washington's solidarity with the Baltic nations and accused neighboring Russia of seeking to "redraw international borders" and "undermine democracies."
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are members of NATO and were under Moscow's rule during the Soviet era.
The three countries have expressed concerns about Russia's intentions, as have Georgia and the third ally on Pence's itinerary: new NATO member Montenegro.
"No threat looms larger in the Baltic states than the specter of aggression from your unpredictable neighbor to the east," Pence said. "At this very moment, Russia continues to seek to redraw international borders by force, undermine the democracies of sovereign nations, and divide the free nations of Europe against one another."
Pence said the U.S. administration “stands firmly” behind Article 5 of the NATO treaty -- the provision stating that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all members of the alliance.
In Georgia, officials said Pence will highlight U.S. support for the Caucasus nation's sovereignty and territorial integrity before continuing on to Montenegro.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili said on July 27 that Pence's visit will demonstrate that the United States continues to support Georgia in building a stronger military force.
He highlighted the joint military exercises including troops from the United States, Britain, Germany, Turkey, Ukraine, Slovenia, and Armenia.
"The vice president's presence here is definitely showing that this is not only about military exercises, but it is also showing unification with our values, with our foreign policy targets, and showing a clear message that we are together," Margvelashvili said.
On the last stop, Pence will visit Montenegro, whose accession to NATO in June was adamantly opposed by Russia.
On August 2, he will attend the Adriatic Charter Summit in Montenegro's capital, Podgorica, U.S. officials said.
Pence was expected to highlight the U.S. commitment to the Western Balkans and stress the need for good governance, political reforms, and rule of law in the region.
The leaders of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia are also scheduled to attend the summit.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, dpa, civil.ge, and Interfax