Vice President Mike Pence said the U.S. “strongly” supports Georgia’s ambition of joining NATO, even as Russia remains hostile to the military alliance expanding its influence in Moscow’s former Soviet backyard.

“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,” Pence said at talks with Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on Tuesday. U.S. President Donald Trump “asked me to extend greetings to you this morning and to say we are with you,” Pence said.

The vice president is also attending joint military exercises involving as many as 800 Georgian and 1,600 U.S. troops during his visit. The Noble Partner 2017 drills, which also include German, U.K., Turkish, Slovenian, Ukrainian and Armenian forces, are the largest in the Caucasus republic since Georgia fought a brief war with Russia in 2008 over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Pence arrived in Georgia Monday after delivering a similar message in Estonia to leaders of Baltic nations facing the “specter of aggression” from Russia, which he called the greatest threat to their security as NATO members. Georgia wants to join NATO against opposition from Russia, whose annexation of Crimea and involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine has strained ties with the U.S. and Europe the most since the Cold War. Russia accuses NATO of seeking to undermine its security by expanding the alliance’s presence near its borders.

Spiraling Tensions

The U.S. is monitoring preparations for major Russian exercises planned on NATO’s eastern border amid concerns about the scale of the military buildup, the New York Times reported on Tuesday. Some 13,000 troops are to take part in joint military drills from Sept. 14-20 in Russia and neighboring Belarus, according to the Belarusian Defense Ministry, which said Russia will also send about 280 military vehicles to the Zapad 2017 exercises.

Pence’s visits to Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro are taking place amid spiraling tensions with Russia after President Vladimir Putin said the U.S. must slash staff at its diplomatic mission by 755, or nearly two-thirds, in retaliation for new sanctions approved by Congress.

Trump “will sign the Russian sanctions bill soon,” Pence said at a news conference later with Kvirikashvili. While the U.S. wants better relations, “Russia has to change its behavior” before this can be achieved, he said.

Kvirikashvili said Georgia’s facing “daily provocations” from Russia, which has encroached deeper into its territory in recent weeks by shifting the dividing lines with the breakaway regions established after the war. Russia has stationed thousands of troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia after recognizing them as independent republics. The international community considers the regions as part of Georgia.

‘Important Milestone’

NATO declared at a summit shortly before the 2008 war that Georgia will become a member at some point. While it hasn’t agreed to accept Georgia since then, partly out of concern about antagonizing Russia, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Tbilisi in September that the alliance is committed to the goal and that “the bonds between NATO and Georgia are stronger than ever.”

Pence’s visit “is an important milestone in the bilateral relationship as we work to further strengthen security, economic, and trade cooperation,” Kvirikashvili said Monday after the vice president’s arrival.

Two-thirds of Georgians support joining NATO while 23 percent are opposed, according to a survey conducted by the Caucasus Resource Research Centers for the National Democratic Institute. The poll of 2,261 respondents was conducted between June 18 and July 9 with a margin of error of no more than 2.2 percentage points.



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