U.S. and Georgia Start Military Exercise Criticized by Russia
Hundreds of American and Georgian service members stood at attention on this former Soviet airfield on Monday, as the two countries began joint military exercises to bolster cooperation between Georgian forces and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
About 300 American soldiers accompanied by 14 Bradley tanks, transported across the Black Sea from Romania, are in Georgia for the two-week training exercise, called Noble Partner.
Under President Vladimir V. Putin, Russia has virulently criticized military exercises on its borders, and at the opening ceremony on Monday, Georgian politicians and American diplomats sought to pre-empt any Russian claims of provocation.
"This training is not directed at anyone or any direct threat," meaning Russia, said Georgia's prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, addressing a crowd of about a hundred diplomats and military officers on Monday.
Maj. Vincent Mucker of the United States Army said that the training exercises were planned before Russia's annexation of Crimea last March and its backing of separatists in southeast Ukraine.
"This is business as usual between the United States and Georgia," Major Mucker said.
The exercises were the first time that a company of battle armor had been transported into the Caucasus region across the Black Sea, proving, Major Mucker said, "that we can use the Black Sea as a transit corridor." Though the government has set a goal of normalizing relations with Russia, views of Moscow remain tainted by a 2008 war over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that resulted in a stinging defeat for Georgia.
"If Russia were a normal country, it wouldn't be concerned by 300 guys and a bunch of Bradleys," said Davit Bakradze, a former chairman of Georgia's Parliament and now an opposition politician, who was at Monday's ceremony. "But they think of Georgia as their sphere of influence. This exercise shows that it clearly is not and that should not be downplayed."
NATO began anti-submarine exercises off the Norwegian coast last week. Lithuania, a NATO member, is preparing its military for an attack of "green men," the Russian soldiers without insignia who seized Crimea's airport and Parliament last spring. In Ukraine, American soldiers are training National Guard units fighting Russian-backed separatists in the southeast.
Though Mr. Putin has long complained of NATO bases "spread across the globe, including near our borders," as he said in an interview with a German television channel last November, the events in Crimea set in motion by Russia have made NATO and the West more active in the region than it has been in recent memory.
In a statement on Monday addressing a visit to Russia this week by Secretary of State John Kerry, the Russian Foreign Ministry noted that "NATO military infrastructure, including the growth of armed forces in Eastern Europe, are being moved toward our borders."
Capt. David Gabedava, a nine-year veteran of the Georgian military who served in Afghanistan, said that the 300 Georgian troops would practice taking and holding a small village of abandoned houses used as a training ground on the base, among other tasks.
Captain Gabedava was not in Georgia when it fought Russia in 2008.
"Unfortunately," he said.
Asked whether he could imagine the NATO rapid reaction force being used against a Russian threat in Georgia, he said that he "hoped the politicians would work it out diplomatically before it came to that."
"But I am a defender of my motherland," he said. "And if my motherland calls I will of course come to help."