Despite Russia’s “very negative” reaction towards planned joint Georgia-NATO training center, the alliance is “firm in resolve” to go ahead with this plan and have the facility in Georgia before the end of this year, NATO Deputy Secretary General, Alexander Vershbow, said in Tbilisi.
Setting up of a joint “training and evaluation center” in Georgia is part of that substantial package, offered to Georgia by NATO at its summit in Wales in September.
During his two-day visit to Georgia, the NATO deputy secretary general also toured the Vaziani training range outside Tbilisi on January 30, which is one of the potential locations for the planned joint training center. Vershbow said that Vaziani is one of the “strong candidates”, but there are some other options as well.
An assessment team from NATO is expected to visit Georgia tentatively in February that will look into different possibilities in order to pick the location for the planned training and evaluation center, he said.
Speaking to an audience at the Tbilisi-based think-tank, Atlantic Council of Georgia, Vershbow said that NATO and Georgia have yet to “flesh out the goals and purposes of the center.”
He said that it has to be determined whether the focus will be primarily on command post exercises or there will also be capacities for field exercises with participation of troops from multiple countries.
“The hope is that it will be the latter,” Vershbow said.
He also said that the centre could host live and simulated trainings and certification for allied and partner military units, in particular for units committed to the NATO Response Force, and it could also host exercises and training in support of NATO’s Connected Forces initiative.
Vershbow said that the training and evaluation center will be “the most visible element of a NATO presence in Georgia” and also is the most visible element of the substantial package of cooperation agreed at the Wales summit.
He also said that the substantial package of cooperation “contains all the tools necessary for Georgia to meet its membership aspirations.”
Its implementation, Vershbow said, requires important political and financial commitments from both NATO and Georgia.
“But we have already made good progress in finding the necessary resources,” he said, adding that the work is expected to be further advanced when NATO and Georgian defense ministers meet in the NATO-Georgia Commission in Brussels on February 5.
He also said that starting this year, “we aim to hold periodic military exercises” in Georgia “with NATO allies as well as with other interested NATO partners.”
Among other elements of the package are “strategic-level advice” to the Georgian Ministry of Defense and general staff of the armed forces.
Vershbow said that it will include further strengthening of the NATO Liaison Office in Tbilisi, which was opened in 2010, and having “a core team of NATO country advisors embedded” in the Georgian MoD, “complemented by experts in specific areas on a permanent basis or on frequent rotations.”
“I think that their presence [team of NATO advisors] may be not as evident to the general public as to some other capitals to North,” Vershbow said.
Responding a question on possible Russia’s reaction to the planned center and if he discussed possible scenarios in this regard during his meetings with the Georgian authorities, Vershbow responded: “We’ve already heard Russians making very negative and even threatening statements regarding the planned joint training and evaluation center.”
“We made it very clear that it’s Georgia’s sovereign choice to host such a facility and it’s our right to assist the sovereign state in strengthening its security by establishing such a facility,” the NATO deputy secretary general said. “We did not get into potential scenarios of what the Russians might do next, but we are very firm in our resolve to go ahead with this.”
“We have to see what the Russians say, what they do, but we will not let them have veto over this sort of legitimate activity. Full stop,” Vershbow said.
He said in his speech that Russia has “turned into an aggressive, unpredictable power.”
“Of course, we saw worrying signs of that reckless behavior before, in particular here in Georgia seven years ago. But by annexing part of another country, waging an undeclared war of subversion in Eastern Ukraine, and intimidating its other neighbors, Russia has gone a decisive step further,” Vershbow said. “NATO does not seek to isolate Russia. Russia is isolating itself. “
Speaking at the Atlantic Council of Georgia, Vershbow also stressed on importance of Georgia staying on the path of democratic reforms.
“Further progress will require continued constructive engagement between the government and the opposition. And it will require dialogue and cooperation between all branches of the executive, as well as with Georgia’s vibrant civil society,” he said.
He said that in coming months NATO allies will be “keeping an especially close eye” on the reform of the prosecutor’s office and the interior ministry.
“Even the perception of selective justice and politically motivated prosecutions must be avoided,” Vershbow said. “The rule of law must be respected in each and every case. That is a fundamental principle within the NATO alliance that Georgia wants to join.”
During his two-day visit to Georgia, the NATO deputy secretary general met PM Irakli Garibashvili and other senior government officials; President Giorgi Margvelashvili; parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili and leaders of opposition UNM and Free Democrats parties, as well as head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II.