TBLISI, Georgia ― U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Georgian counterpart on Monday signed an agreement to extend U.S.-led military training for the embattled Black Sea ally as part of the secretary’s trip through the region to reaffirm support for eastern allies on the front lines of Russian aggression.
The action came on the first leg of Austin’s trip, ahead of visits to other Black Sea allies Ukraine and Romania to deliver a message of “unwavering” support for their sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian threats. Since Russia’s war with Georgia, it has had a 13-year grip on Georgia’s breakaway territories, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, that Austin decried on Monday.
“One point I’d like to be clear on is the United States condemns Russia’s ongoing occupation of Georgia and its attempts to expand influence in the Black Sea region through military coercion and malign activities,” Austin said while standing beside Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. “This is an important region, and its security and stability is crucial to fully realize a vision that we share of a Europe that is whole and free and at peace.
Georgia and Ukraine are NATO aspirants, and Romania is a member. Amid the Russian troop presence, NATO hasn’t agreed to advance Georgia’s membership, and the west has also been pressuring Georgia to curb corruption and reverse its democratic backsliding.
Austin responded to a question about Georgia’s reform efforts during a press conference at the Georgian Defense Ministry with Georgian Defense Minister Juansher Burchuladze.
“The U.S. has always been a strong supporter of Georgia’s democratic development and independence, and we consistently seek to strengthen its democratic institutions,” Austin said. “Our embassy noted some problems with the recent election, but we also expressed confidence in Georgia’s ability to improve.”
U.S. Army, Marine Corps and special operations forces have trained Georgian infantry troops to resist Russian aggression in their territory, but its three-year term was set to end in December. The follow-on program unveiled Monday is aimed at making bureaucratic reforms, but would also teach Georgian maneuver brigades to integrate fires and include engineering capabilities for the first time.
“We are at a new level of collaboration and cooperation with the United States, which to maximum possible extent assures both Georgia’s defense and deterrence capabilities,” Burchuladze said.
Austin’s visits to the region follow a summer that saw U.S. Navy participation in live-fire drills on the Black Sea, where Russian warships were a constant presence. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet began its own exercise last month, firing its Bastion mobile anti-ship and surface-to-surface defense system at targets off the coast of Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
The Black Sea region holds strategic value for Moscow as a corridor for energy, telecommunications and transit to the Mediterranean, and the high-level visits are bound to make Moscow uncomfortable, said Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe.
“The last thing that the Kremlin wants is big Western investment in Georgia,” Hodges said. “So the fact that the secretary of defense of the United States is visiting three Black Sea nations is an important signal of the interests the United States has in the region, and we should be working hard on a strategy for the Black Sea region.”
The trip, which will wrap up at NATO’s defense ministerial meeting in Brussels, is his first to Europe since the chaotic U.S. exit from Afghanistan. European allies have criticized the U.S. departure, and Russian officials have used it to argue America would abandon its Ukrainian allies.
Austin thanked Georgia for its participation in the Iraq War and Afghanistan, where Georgia lost 32 troops and was a top non-NATO contributor to the NATO-led mission.
It was the first visit from an American defense secretary since Chuck Hagel visited in 2014.
Weapons were not part of Monday’s announcement, but in August, the Biden administration approved a potential foreign military sale to Georgia for as much as $30 million in Javelin anti-tank missiles and launchers. The 46 launchers and 82 missiles, made by a Raytheon Technologies-Lockheed Martin joint venture, would come from U.S. Army stocks, according to the announcement.
It’s unclear how this week’s NATO meeting will address Georgia and Ukraine. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Washington earlier this month “there is a lot in between nothing and full membership” and that he hopes “we can make some ambitious decisions at the next NATO Summit,” set for Madrid next year.
Austin will also meet with Ukrainian officials in Kyiv this week to discuss institutional reforms and further show support for Ukraine’s sovereignty in the face of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing war.
This summer, President Joe Biden pledged another $60 million in military aid, which includes more Javelin anti-tank missiles. The U.S. has overall committed more than $400 million in military aid this year, and Austin is not expected to announce more this week.
Austin will also visit NATO headquarters in Brussels for the alliance’s first in-person meeting of defense ministers since the COVID-19 pandemic. The alliance is grappling with criticism the U.S. didn’t consult allies before the pullout from Afghanistan.
However, Austin is likely to focus on China, which he has called the Pentagon’s top pacing threat as well as international cooperation to fight the Islamic State around the globe.
“The secretary intends to spend a lot of time listening to allies’ perspectives on where they see our [counter-ISIS] operations going, both in terms of Iraq and Syria, but also given the broader ISIS threat around the world,” said a senior administration official.
With reporting by the Associated Press.
Joe Gould is the Congress reporter for Defense News.