Noble Partner Military Exercises in Georgia
The fourth iteration of Noble Partner military exercises began in Georgia on Wednesday and will continue for the next two weeks. The Georgian Armed Forces and United States’ (U.S.) Army Europe cooperatively-led exercise will involve troops from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, France, Georgia, Germany, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.
Approximately 3,000 servicemen will take part in the exercises: 1,170 U.S. troops, 1,300 Georgian troops, and 500 troops from the remaining countries. The exercises will also include 140 pieces of military equipment including the U.S.’s Stryker and Bradley fighting vehicles, five M1A2 Abrams battle tanks, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, and Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters.
The exercises were initially designed to support Georgia’s integration into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Response Forces and were first carried out in 2015 and involved only 600 U.S. and Georgian soldiers. Since then, the scale of the exercises has grown every year. This year approximately 3,000 servicemen will take part in the exercises: 1,170 U.S. troops, 1,300 Georgian troops, and 500 troops from the remaining countries. The exercises will also include 140 pieces of military equipment including the U.S.’s Stryker and Bradley fighting vehicles, five M1A2 Abrams battle tanks, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, and Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters. The latest drills are helping train Georgia’s mechanized and special operations forces, the U.S.’s regionally-aligned forces, and the state of Georgia’s U.S. Army and Air National Guard.
The Georgian Ministry of Defense says the exercise’s goal is “to improve skills in stability, defensive and offensive operations, increase interoperability between the armed forces of participating countries and contribute to the security of the Black Sea region.” Speaking at the drill’s opening ceremony in the Vaziani military airfield, Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze reiterated these goals and added that the exercises are not targeted against any country. On the other hand, Georgia’s President Giorgi Margvelashvili struck a different tone, noting in his opening remarks “today you are standing on the territory of a country, twenty percent of which is illegally occupied by our neighbor Russia.”
Russia has been wary of Noble Partner exercises in the past, going so far as to call them “a provocative step aimed at escalating the military and political situation in the South Caucasus” in 2016. This is in keeping with its general distrust of stronger Georgia-U.S. ties. President Putin called such policies “aggressive” this past July and claimed to have raised the issue with President Trump during their Helsinki summit. Russia has not made an official comment on Noble Partner 2018 specifically; however, i, however n a speech to a National Education Youth Forum on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cryptically told students to “rest assured, we are aware of the schemes harbored by the militaries of both the US and other Western countries against the Russian Federation.” Russia also launched its military exercises in the North Caucasus region bordering Georgia which coincides with Noble Partner 2018. The Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia, a Russia-supported breakaway region of Georgia, released a statement condemning the exercises and promising to intensify cooperation with Russia in response.
Though NATO does not organize the drills, most of the participants are NATO members, with the exceptions of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine. Georgia and Ukraine have both long been seeking stronger NATO ties, but face strong Russian objections and internal obstacles. Armenia and Azerbaijan are both members of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (1992) and the Partnership for Peace (1994), institutions meant to foster a partnership between NATO countries and non-NATO partners.
Georgia has repeatedly stated that its long-term goal is NATO membership. Following Putin’s July statements, the Chairman of the Georgian Parliament fired back, saying “for us, priority issues in foreign policy are to be integrated with NATO and the EU, and you know that we are moving forward.” NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg expressed support for these aspirations and said that the alliance would keep working with Georgia to prepare it for membership.