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U.S. Defense Chief Inks Cooperation Deal With Georgia On First Leg Of Visit To Black Sea Allies

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U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (right) with Georgian Defense Minister Juansher Burchuladze in Tbilisi on October 18.

TBILISI -- Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has signed a preliminary agreement to continue U.S. backing for Georgia's military as he kicked off a three-country visit to the Black Sea region to show support for allies and partner states in the face of Russia's "destabilizing actions."

The current support agreement, known as the Georgia Defense Readiness Program (GDRP), started in May 2018 and is to expire at the end of the year, but Austin and Georgian Defense Minister Junasher Burchuladze signed the replacement agreement on October 18 during Austin's visit to the country.

During a ceremony in Tbilisi, Austin and Georgian Defense Minister Juansher Burchuladze signed the document, which the Pentagon chief said, "marks a new phase of our bilateral security cooperation" and "demonstrates the U.S. commitment to supporting Georgia."

The new agreement, the Georgia Defense and Deterrence Enhancement Initiative (GDDEI) "will be a multiyear investment" in U.S. Department of Defense "security cooperation" with the Georgian Defense Ministry, a Pentagon statement said.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in 2008 and Russian troops have remained in Georgia's South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions. Moscow opposes any effort to increase Georgia's status within NATO.

Georgian and U,S, servicemen take part in the Agile Spirit multinational military exercise at the Vaziani military base outside Tbilisi earlier this year.
Georgian and U,S, servicemen take part in the Agile Spirit multinational military exercise at the Vaziani military base outside Tbilisi earlier this year.

In a meeting with Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, Austin said, "the United States condemns Russia's ongoing occupation of Georgia and its attempts to expand influence into the Black Sea region through military coercion and malign activities."

Some 20,000 Georgian soldiers served as part of a U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan from 2004-21, with the Caucasus state reporting 32 deaths among its troops.

"Secretary Austin expressed gratitude for Georgia’s outsized contributions to the U.S. and NATO efforts to bring security and stability to Afghanistan," the statement said.

Austin will also travel to Ukraine and Romania before heading to the NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels on October 21-22.

Ahead of Austin's tour, the Pentagon said in a statement that the United States "steadfastly supports its European Allies and partners in the face of Russia’s destabilizing actions in the critical Black Sea region," and the defense secretary "looks forward to meeting with his counterparts and other senior officials to reinforce the United States' commitment to a safe, stable, and prosperous Europe."

The visit to Tbilisi has been widely anticipated by Georgia's leadership, which has long sought to become a full member of NATO -- a move that Moscow fiercely opposes.

Georgia is currently a partner state of the Western alliance.

In July, joint military exercises involving about 4,000 troops from 15 allied and partner countries, including the United States, took place in Georgia.

The multinational Agile Spirit exercises were led jointly by the Georgian Defense Forces and the U.S. Army Europe and Africa.

U.S. officials have in the past spoken positively about Georgia's potential for NATO membership.

With reporting by AP and AFP
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