TBILISI: Georgian and NATO forces on Monday launched joint military exercises as part of the ex-Soviet country's bid to win membership in the 29-nation alliance that has infuriated its old master Russia.
Held at the Krtsanisi Georgia-NATO Joint Training and Evaluation Centre outside the capital Tbilisi, the 12-day drills "are a significant milestone in strengthening NATO-Georgia military-political cooperation," Georgia's defence ministry said.
The games involve 350 servicemen from the US, Britain, France, Germany and 17 other allied nations as well as Azerbaijan, Finland, and Sweden, the defence ministry said in a statement. "The exercises are aimed at strengthening Georgia's defence capabilities and are not directed against any third country," deputy defence minister Lela Chikovani told journalists.
The prospect of Georgia joining NATO is seen by the Kremlin as a Western incursion into its traditional sphere of influence. Tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow over Georgia's pro-Western trajectory and control of the pro-Western country's breakaway regions led to a brief but bloody war in 2008.
During the conflict over Moscow-backed separatist regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia routed Georgia's small military in just five days, recognised the independence of the breakaway regions and stationed military bases there. At a 2008 summit in Romania, NATO leaders said Georgia would join the bloc at an unspecified future date, but have so far refused to put the country on a formal membership path.