President Mikheil Saakashvilii watches the Agile Spirit exercises with Lt Col. Richard Coates, commanding officer of the U.S. Marine contingent at the exercise.
U.S. Marines and Georgian soldiers are conducting joint military exercises and, in a development that everyone saw coming, it's become controversial, with Russia calling it a "provocation."
The exercises include 350 Marines and 400 Georgian troops and are scheduled to end Wednesday after nine days of drills. The U.S. contingent is part of the Romania-based Black Sea Rotational Force. Their goal is to build military-military relations with the Georgians, while the Georgians are training to go to Afghanistan. From a Marine Corps press release:
"We have a little different way of doing things but we all learn by training and experience, so it’s good for us to share," said Sgt. Besiki Gabeshuili, 26, Company Sergeant, Company A, 42nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Brigade. "This is my third time doing this type of training with the Marines and we are very excited because the experience helps prepare us to work together in the future."
The Marines and soldiers took a break from the ranges on the fourth day for weapons maintenance, hygiene and to prepare for the second half of the training. During the next three days Marines and Georgian soldiers participated in specialized classes consisting of cordon and search techniques, convoy tactics, counter improvised explosive device tactics, convoy operations and the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.
Sounds routine enough, but not to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, via Civil.ge:
“I met with [the U.S. Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton [in New York on March 12] and raised another serious issue – the U.S.-Georgian military exercises are starting,” Lavrov said. “Scenario of the exercises is suppression of rebellion. It seems somewhat provocative.”
And he threw in a jab suggesting that Georgian President MIkheil Saakashvili was exaggerating the importance of his meeting with President Obama in January, after which Saaakshvili said that military relations between the two countries was set to reach a "new level."
“He [Saakashvili] was in Washington not long ago [in late January] and after talks with Obama he said, that the U.S. would restore in its full capacity military cooperation with them [Georgia]. We have asked Americans and it turned out that he [Saakashvili] has exaggerated perceptions of what he actually heard [at the meeting with President Obama],” Lavrov said.
Saakashvili visited the exercises on Sunday, and observed:
“We have a serious progress in terms of training of the armed forces in recent years; we also made a serious progress in terms of strengthening our self-defense infrastructure.”
“We will have a very good territorial defense system, maximally close to those which Switzerland, Sweden have; shortly speaking, we will take into consideration the best European experiences,” Saakashvili said.
“We have learnt from the past experience and we continue development of our defense forces without much noise, bragging and PR,” he added.
Indeed, who would ever suggest that Georgia is interested in PR?! Perish the thought.
The exercises also are taking place against a backdrop of an unrelated military controversy: the claim by a supporter of oppositionist billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili that Saakashvili is setting up paramilitary groups to use violence against his political opponents. Georgia's defense minister responded that such claims were "stupid delirium" and even U.S. ambassador John Bass weighed in, saying that making such claims without evidence was "distressing."
Perhaps remarkably, RT -- rarely slow to develop an anti-American, anti-Saakashvili conspiracy theory -- has failed to connect the dots on this one. It's not too big a leap, is it, to think that Saakashvili is getting U.S. military help to violently maintain his grip on power? Want to place bets on when someone in the Kremlin makes this allegation?