BRUSSELS -- NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has expressed the alliance’s “strong commitment” to Georgia’s security and called on Russia to withdraw its forces from separatist regions in the Caucasus country.
Stoltenberg was speaking to reporters in Brussels on December 6 -- the second and last day of a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting.
The meeting was attended by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who also stressed NATO backing for Georgia.
"We discussed NATO’s strong commitment to Georgia’s security and territorial integrity and reviewed the many ways that Georgia and the alliance are working together,” Stoltenberg said.
“We remain concerned by the deepening of Russia’s relations with the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia. We call on Russia to end its recognition of these regions and withdraw its forces from Georgian territory," he added.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia are Russian-backed separatist regions that have declared independence from Georgia. Russia recognized the regions as independent states following a short war with Tbilisi in August 2008. Only a few countries followed Russia's lead.
Georgia, which has expressed hopes of joining NATO, and Russia broke off diplomatic relations following the 2008 war. Moscow keeps troops in both regions in what Georgia considers an occupation.
Stoltenberg said NATO ministers also discussed Georgia's "successful efforts to modernize its armed forces” and that the alliance is "fully committed" to providing Tbilisi with the advice and tools needed to move toward eventual membership.
“Our armed forces are increasingly capable of operating together, and planning is already under way for the 2019 NATO-Georgia joint military exercise," the secretary-general said.
"Our Joint Training and Evaluation Center in Georgia is up and running, and the NATO-funded Defense Institution Building School in Georgia has already trained around a thousand soldiers in subjects as diverse as the rule of law in armed conflict, hybrid warfare, and cybersecurity,” he added.
“NATO continues to benefit from Georgia’s advice on security issues relating to the Black Sea. And we are engaged in increasingly close dialogue on the Black Sea region and the cooperation in the region."
In late July, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited Georgia in a trip timed to correspond with the Noble Partner 2017 military exercises that featured some 1,600 U.S., 800 Georgian, and other allied troops in a show of defiance to Moscow.
Stoltenberg cited work in other areas of cooperation, such as energy security, explosive-ordnance disposal, cyberdefense, intelligence, secure communications, and promoting the role of women serving in the Georgian armed forces.
“In other words, NATO’s support to Georgia is concrete and is making a real difference," he said.
Meanwhile, Tillerson hailed what he called “a productive discussion” with Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze.
“Georgia is a large contributor to our joint efforts in Afghanistan. In fact, they are the largest per capita of any contributing nation, and we strongly support Georgia’s aspirations to become a NATO member,” the U.S. secretary of state told reporters.
With reporting by Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels