TBILISI -- Around 350 personnel from 24 NATO member states and partner countries started a joint military exercise in Georgia on March 18.
The drills, dubbed NATO-Georgia Exercise 2019, will last until March 29 at the Krtsanisi National Training Center, near Tbilisi.
The exercise is “important for Georgia and a significant milestone in strengthening NATO-Georgia military-political cooperation,” a statement from the Western military alliance said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is set to visit Georgia during the exercises to meet with the Caucasus republic's leadership and attend the drills.
The first NATO-Georgia exercises were held in 2016.
At a 2008 summit, NATO agreed that Georgia, a former Soviet republic with a population of 3.7 million, will eventually become a member of the alliance, but no firm date has been given, although the membership perspective for the country has been reconfirmed at every summit since.
Georgian Defense Minister Levan Izoria said on March 18 that the military exercises are of a defensive nature and not directed against Russia.
Moscow has made explicit its opposition to NATO’s further expansion, especially regarding Georgia and Ukraine. Kyiv also seeks to become a member of the security alliance.
Russia has been keeping its troops in Georgia's separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia since it recognized the two breakaway regions' independence following its brief war with Georgia in August 2008.
Russian troops guard the two breakaway regions' de facto boundaries with Georgia.
Georgia's State Security Service said earlier that Russian troops had detained a Georgian national near the administrative boundary between Georgia and South Ossetia.
Local residents in the village of Ditsi told RFE/RL that Givi Beruashvil, 21, was detained by Russian soldiers on March 17, four days after separatist Abkhaz officials handed the body of another Georgian citizen, Irakli Kvaratskhelia, to Tbilisi.
Abkhazia's de facto officials and Russian border guards have said the 29-year-old Kvaratskhelia hanged himself in a detention room after he was detained for alleged illegal border crossing.
Last year, another Georgian man, Archil Tatunashvili, died under unclear circumstances while in custody in South Ossetia.
Separatist authorities in South Ossetia said then that Tatunashvili was detained on suspicion of intending to conduct a terrorist attack in the region and died of heart failure after he allegedly attacked police as they tried to move him to a detention cell.
In 2016, 31-year-old Georgian citizen Giga Otkhozoria was shot dead by Russian troops patrolling the area near the boundary.