WASHINGTON, Sept. 07, 2014 —
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made his first official visit to Georgia today following his participation at the NATO Summit in Wales, meeting with government and military leaders and congratulating the U.S. military partner on its new status as an enhanced NATO partner.
Hagel began his 16th international trip Sept. 3; a six-day visit that included participation in the NATO Summit in Wales last week and meetings with government and military leaders in Georgia and Turkey.
Meeting with the defense minister
This morning, after an official welcoming ceremony at the Ministry of Defense in Tbilisi, Hagel met with Defense Minister Irakli Alasania. During a press conference that followed the meeting, both reaffirmed their nations’ close defense partnership and the shared goal to build even stronger military ties.
“I also expressed the gratitude of the American people for the … significant contributions Georgia has made to operations in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Over more than a decade of fighting together, our two militaries have forged a deep and enduring friendship and a strong and vibrant partnership,” Hagel said.
In 2012, the U.S. and Georgian presidents agreed to an enhanced defense cooperation program to accelerate Georgia's defense reforms and modernization, increase Georgia's level of NATO interoperability and improve the nation's defense capabilities.
As a result of the agreement, the United States and Georgia have increased cooperative training events and dialogues among subject matter experts.
Because Georgia is a committed and dependable U.S. partner, the defense secretary said, the Defense Department fully supports Georgia's defense modernization efforts and will continue to help the nation fulfill its Euro-Atlantic aspirations -- including membership in NATO.
New NATO status
Hagel and Alasania discussed how the substantial package of measures for Georgia that NATO leaders endorsed at the Wales summit will strengthen the country’s relationship with NATO, Hagel added. These include expanded defense capacity-building efforts, more joint training exercises and enhanced interoperability capabilities.
Georgia was one of five nations to achieve the new elevated status of NATO enhanced-opportunities partners, and Hagel said the United States would make a substantial contribution to the new alliance effort and to continuing bilateral U.S.-Georgia capacity-building efforts.
“Today the minister and I discussed the necessary steps for Georgia to acquire the U.S. military helicopters that they have requested,” Hagel said, adding that Georgia's new status would help the nation advance its preparations toward NATO membership.
Hagel said the deepening ties between NATO and Georgia are especially important given the “dangerous and irresponsible actions of President [Vladimir] Putin toward Ukraine.”
Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea, which the United States does not recognize, the secretary noted, “and the ongoing military campaign that Russia is mounting in eastern Ukraine, pose grave threats to regional stability, as had its actions inside Georgia's internationally recognized borders.”
The United States continues to call on Russia to fully withdraw its forces from Georgia's borders, Hagel said, adding that the United States welcomes the restraint Georgia has shown in this situation.
“Russia's actions here and in Ukraine pose a long-term challenge that the United States and our allies take very seriously. But President Putin's actions have also brought the United States and our friends in Europe, including Georgia, closer together,” Hagel said.
“We will need a close partnership to counter another key security challenge -- the growing threat of violent extremism,” the secretary added.
Hagel said he and Alasania discussed ways Georgia could play an important role in a partnership with the United States, Iraq and coalition partners to destroy the ISIL threat.
“This is a galvanizing moment for NATO and our partners,” Hagel added. “I believe that the summit in Wales put us on the right path to respond to President Putin's challenge over the long term, as well as the threat of ISIL.”
After the press conference, Hagel made his way to a meeting with Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, stopping first at Heroes Square to lay a wreath.
Heroes Square, built in 2009, honors those who died protecting Georgia’s territory. Etched into the main monument, a tall pillar of marble and methacrylate, are the names -- about 4,000 in total -- of Georgian military cadets who died fighting the Red Army in 1921, the leaders of an anti-Soviet revolt in 1924, and those who died during military actions in Abkhazia in 1992-1993 and in the five-day war in South Ossetia in August 2008.
Across the street, facing the obelisk, an eternal flame is flanked by an honor guard of two soldiers.
Afterward, Hagel met with the prime minister at the State Chancellery and later in the day at the President’s Palace with Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby provided readouts of the meetings.
In his meeting with the Georgian president, Hagel thanked Margvelashvili for his leadership and for the contributions Georgia continues to make in Afghanistan and other peacekeeping missions.
Georgia in Afghanistan
Georgian armed forces members have served in Afghanistan since 2004. The first full Georgian unit deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. Georgia is the largest non-NATO troop contributor to the International Security Assistance Force, with more than 10,000 soldiers having operated with Marines in Helmand Province.
To date, 29 Georgian soldiers have died and 276 have been wounded during their service in Afghanistan. Beyond 2014, Georgia has agreed to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Security Forces and has pledged financial assistance.
Meeting with the defense minister
Kirby said Hagel also praised the efforts of Defense Minister Alasania in helping the two militaries maintain a strong defense relationship, and reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to working with Georgia on a range of bilateral and alliance initiatives.
The two leaders discussed a host of regional security issues, the admiral said, including Russia's continued aggression inside Ukraine and the threat its actions pose to the regional and international order, and the threat posed by ISIL in the Middle East.
One concern was common to Hagel’s meeting with Margvelashvili, and earlier in the day with the prime minister, Kirby said; the problem of foreign fighters flowing into Syria to join extremist groups and the threat those fighters represent to their homelands.
Hagel updated Margvelashvili and Gharibashvili on U.S. efforts to build a coalition of nations willing to contribute to continued operations inside Iraq and against ISIL, Kirby added. And the secretary thanked the Georgian leaders for their willingness to consider ways to support that initiative.
“In both his meetings this afternoon,” the admiral said, “Secretary Hagel pledged to continue the close dialogue and cooperation between our two countries.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)