by Staff Writers
Vaziani, Georgia (AFP) May 11, 2016
Georgia on Wednesday launched joint military exercises with the United States and Britain, angering Russia, which opposes the former Soviet state's desire to join NATO.
Some 500 Georgian, 650 US and 150 British troops are taking part in the drills, billed as the largest ever to be held in the Caucasus nation, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008.
The US has sent some of its M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks across the Black Sea to Georgia for the "Noble Partner 2016" exercises, which will last until May 26 at the Vaziani training area outside the capital Tbilisi.
The exercises "represent a continuation of the right policy that we pursue towards NATO," Georgia's President Giorgi Margvelashvili said at the opening ceremony.
"Georgia will definitely become a member of NATO," he said. "Because that's necessary for a stable, more peaceful world."
The Pentagon's website said "Noble Partner emphasizes USAREUR's (US Army Europe) abilities to quickly move soldiers and equipment throughout Europe and operate together within a coalition in any potential future operation."
On Friday, Russia's foreign ministry denounced the exercises as a "provocative move" by NATO aimed at destabilising the Caucasus region.
Moscow accuses NATO of expanding its forces in the former Eastern Bloc in a bid to counter Russia.
The US-led alliance argues it is responding to the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Georgia's Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said Tuesday that "these exercises are not directed against anyone. There is no trace of provocation."
Georgia's bid to join NATO and the European Union have infuriated its former imperial master Moscow, which bitterly opposes the 28-nation alliance's expansion into former Soviet countries.
NATO leaders agreed at a 2008 summit in Bucharest that Georgia would one day join the military organisation, but have not yet put the country on a formal path to membership.
Speaking at the opening of a NATO training centre in Georgia last year, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that Tbilisi "already has the necessary tools to make progress towards membership."
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