Robert Simmons, NATO’s special envoy to the Caucasus and Central Asia, refused to set a date for Georgia’s entry into the military alliance, saying that would be futile. Georgia, a former Soviet republic that borders Russia, has been embroiled in domestic political infighting.
Russia has sharply criticized the war games being held near South Ossetia, a newly independent province that was at the center of the war last summer between Russia and Georgia. And confirmation of NATO’s intent to accept Georgia will probably anger Russia.
NATO has said before that Georgia and Ukraine can eventually join the alliance despite Russia’s opposition, but has stopped short of granting them a formal roadmap to membership.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, criticized by the opposition for failing to avert the disastrous war, attended Monday’s military exercises on a wind-blown hilltop base just outside the capital, Tbilisi.
Saakashvili has faced daily protests by thousands of opposition activists urging him to step down. He has said he will not leave office before his term ends in 2013.
Simmons said the way Saakashvili has allowed the opposition to protest virtually unhindered was a positive sign.
During Monday’s training, American, Spanish, Italian and Greek soldiers walked Georgian military through various battlefield attack techniques. The Georgian soldiers trained with Russian-made weapons and fired at silhouette targets dotted around the field as NATO troops observed, occasionally intervening.
A helicopter landed just yards (meters) from the field in which the live-fire exercise was being conducted, drawing gasps from British personnel. The helicopter later whisked Saakashvili away.