TBILISI — NATO on Thursday opened a training center in Georgia as the ex-Soviet country eyes closer partnership with the Western military alliance amid tensions with Russia.
The establishment of the NATO-Georgian Joint Training and Evaluation Center, to be based just outside the capital Tbilisi, is aimed at buttressing the small ex-Soviet country which fought a five-day war with Russia in 2008.
"There is more Georgia in NATO and more NATO in Georgia," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a joint news conference alongside Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili before the opening ceremony.
Stoltenberg, who arrived in Tbilisi on Wednesday, said the center would train both Georgian and NATO troops.
"This center will help Georgia to continue making its armed forces more modern and more capable of meeting 21st century challenges," Stontelberg said at the opening ceremony in the Krtsanisi National Training Center outside Tbilisi.
"It will be equally important in training Allied and partner troops," he said in the presence of Georgia's prime minister, president and top officials.
Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili stressed for his part that the center would increase regional stability and was not directed "against any neighboring countries."
Georgia has long sought full NATO membership and hopes to be invited to join a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a formal step towards membership, at a NATO summit in Warsaw next year.
But analysts doubt that NATO will grant Georgia MAP membership next year for fear of infuriating Russia amid heightened tensions over the Ukraine crisis.
Stontelberg on Thursday sounded non-committal when asked about Georgia's chances to get the NATO membership plan at the Warsaw summit.
He said that he "cannot prejudge the conclusions and the decisions which are going to be taken at the NATO summit next year."
"What I can say is that Georgia already has the necessary tools to make progress towards membership," he said.
"I see that there is more work to do, but I am very inspired and encouraged by the progress we have seen."
"All the commitments we have made together are on track and on time and all these efforts help Georgia to move closer to your aspiration of NATO membership", he said.
Moscow's annexation of Crimea last year and the subsequent violence in eastern Ukraine have strained Russia's already tense relations with NATO, and each accuses the other of meddling in the affairs of the former Soviet countries.
In August 2008, Georgia fought and lost a brief war with Russia over the Kremlin-backed separatist region of South Ossetia.