U.S. Defense Chief Inks Cooperation Deal With Georgia On First Leg Of Visit To Black Sea Allies

(Article text ©2021 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty - rferl.org - Steve Gutterman - Oct. 18, 2021 - article text also appeared at rferl.org/a/austin-georgia-us-nato/31515931.html

TBILISI -- U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has signed a preliminary agreement with his Georgian counterpart to develop security cooperation between the two countries, as he kicked off a three-nation visit to the Black Sea region to show support for allies and partner states in the face of Russia's "destabilizing actions.”

During a ceremony in Tbilisi on October 18, Austin and Georgian Defense Minister Juansher Burchuladze signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the Georgia Defense and Deterrence Enhancement Initiative, which the Pentagon chief said “marks a new phase of our bilateral security cooperation” and “demonstrates the U.S. commitment to supporting Georgia.”

No details were given on the memorandum, which is likely to irk Russia, but Burchuladze said the “critically important document” will allow a new level of cooperation with the United States in the sphere of defense.

Austin landed at Tbilisi International Airport earlier in the day for the first visit to the country by a Pentagon chief since 2014.

He will also travel to Ukraine and Romania before heading to the NATO defense ministerial meeting in Brussels on October 21-22.

Ahead of Austin's tour, the Pentagon said in a statement that the United States "steadfastly supports its European Allies and partners in the face of Russia’s destabilizing actions in the critical Black Sea region," and the defense secretary "looks forward to meeting with his counterparts and other senior officials to reinforce the United States’ commitment to a safe, stable, and prosperous Europe."

The visit to Tbilisi has been widely anticipated by Georgia's leadership, which has long sought to become a full member of NATO -- a move that Moscow fiercely opposes.

Georgia is currently a partner state of the Western alliance.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in 2008 and Russian troops have remained in Georgia's regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moscow opposes any effort to increase Georgia’s status within NATO.

In July, joint military exercises involving about 4,000 troops from 15 allied and partner countries, including the United States, took place in Georgia.

The multinational Agile Spirit exercises were led jointly by the Georgian Defense Forces and U.S. Army Europe and Africa.

U.S. officials have in the past spoken positively about Georgia's potential for NATO membership.

Austin will meet with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and Burchuladze during the trip to "reaffirm U.S. support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and underscore the importance of the U.S.-Georgia strategic partnership in addressing regional and global security challenges," the Pentagon said.

The officials will also discuss bilateral security cooperation and "encourage greater regional cooperation in the Black Sea," it added.

Austin is also expected to express appreciation for Georgia's contribution to the Western effort in the two-decade war in Afghanistan.

Some 20,000 Georgian soldiers served as part of a U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2021, with the Caucasus nation reporting 32 deaths among its troops.


Key Words: Georgia, Military, Black Sea, Russia, Military Training, Pentagon, Department of Defense

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