U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has reaffirmed Washington's support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity during a visit to Tbilisi and denounced Russia’s “aggression” and “occupation” of Georgian territory.
“America stands with Georgia," Pence said on August 1 at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili.
“Today, Russia continues to occupy one-fifth of Georgian territory,” Pence said. “So, to be clear -- the United States of America strongly condemns Russia's occupation on Georgia's soil."
The Kremlin recognized Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries after fighting a five-day war against Tbilisi in 2008. Russia maintains thousands of troops in the two regions.
"The United States supports Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders,” Pence added. “And under President Donald Trump, the United States of America will object to any claim at any time by any nation that undermines this enduring principle."
Pence said Trump will “very soon” sign legislation that would impose additional economic sanctions on Russia.
The sanctions bill was overwhelmingly passed by Congress last week, and in response Moscow demanded that Washington drastically reduce its diplomatic staff in Russia.
"We hope for better relations with Russia,” Pence said. “But the recent diplomatic action taken by Moscow, I can assure you, will not deter the commitment of the United States to our security, that of our allies, and the freedom-loving nations around the world, like Georgia."
The relationship between Washington and Moscow has been badly damaged by Russia's aggression in Ukraine, its role in the war in Syria, and its alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Pence also reiterated that the United States “strongly” supports the Caucasus country’s aspirations to become a NATO member.
"I commended the prime minister for Georgia's democratic development, which has brought Georgia closer to unity with Europe and membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” he said. “Further progress on the goals that the prime minister has set will bring Georgia even closer and NATO even closer to your grasp and it will strengthen the bond between our nations."
Pence also met on August 1 with the leaders of the Georgian opposition and addressed troops participating in NATO joint military exercises being conducted in Georgia, saying, "We stand here today in the gap -- on a front line of freedom, a front line compromised by Russian aggression nearly a decade ago."
Pence was accompanied by Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili during the troop review at the Vaziani military air base outside Tbilisi.
Margvelashvili highlighted the fact that Russian troops remain deployed as occupiers in Georgia's breakaway separatist regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia where they are supporting separatist leaders.
"Some dozen kilometers away there are barb wire fences built and installed to prohibit citizens of my country from free movement," Margvelashvili said. "Just a few kilometers [from here], people are persecuted just because they are Georgians."
"Twenty percent of my nation's territory is occupied because Georgia decided to be a free and independent nation," Margvelashvili continued. "And this has been continuing for a quarter of a century. The response of the international community appeared not to be enough to stop Russia from treating its neighborhood like its backyard. This policy has no limits unless we stop it. The occupation of Georgian territories must become a game changer [in an effort to] end the confrontation paradigm and the paradigm of spheres of privileged interests."
About 800 Georgian and 1,600 U.S. troops are taking part in the Noble Partner 2017 drills, along with soldiers from Britain, Germany, Turkey, Ukraine, Slovenia, and Armenia.
Pence met earlier on August 1 with the leaders of the Georgian opposition and was also planning to attend NATO joint military exercises being conducted in Georgia. About 800 Georgian and 1,600 U.S. troops are taking part in the Noble Partner 2017 drills there.
At an official dinner in the Georgian capital late on July 31, Pence said, “We stand with you, for your freedom and for our shared values.”
Kvirikashvili said the United States “has a dedicated friend in Georgia, a stable geopolitical ally, and a strategic partner.”
In comments released earlier by the Georgian government, Kvirikashvili described Pence's visit as "an important milestone in the bilateral relationship as we work to further strengthen security, economic, and trade cooperation between our two countries."
Pence arrived in Tbilisi from Estonia, where he reaffirmed Washington's solidarity with the Baltic nations and accused neighboring Russia of seeking to "redraw international borders" and "undermine democracies."
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are members of NATO and were under Moscow's rule during the Soviet era.
The three countries have expressed concerns about Russia's intentions, as have Georgia and the third ally on Pence's itinerary: new NATO member Montenegro.
"No threat looms larger in the Baltic states than the specter of aggression from your unpredictable neighbor to the east," Pence said. "At this very moment, Russia continues to seek to redraw international borders by force, undermine the democracies of sovereign nations, and divide the free nations of Europe against one another."
Pence also said the U.S. administration “stands firmly” behind Article 5 of the NATO treaty -- the provision stating that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all members of the alliance.
On August 2, he will attend the Adriatic Charter Summit in Montenegro's capital, Podgorica, U.S. officials said.
Montenegro accession to NATO in June was adamantly opposed by Russia.
Pence was expected to highlight the U.S. commitment to the Western Balkans and stress the need for good governance, political reforms, and rule of law in the region.
The leaders of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia are also scheduled to attend the summit.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, dpa, civil.ge, and Interfax