April 15, 2009 / 6:02 PM / 9 years ago

NATO plans May military exercises in Georgia

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO said on Wednesday it would hold military exercises next month in Georgia, a former Soviet republic promised eventual alliance membership but whose territory was invaded by Russia last August.

No immediate comment was available from Russia, which considers Georgia part of its traditional sphere of influence. Russia invaded Georgia to defeat an attempt by its pro-Western leadership to retake the breakaway South Ossetia region.

NATO’s announcement of the exercises, which will involve 1,300 troops from 19 countries, comes at a time when it is seeking to rebuild ties with Russia damaged as a result of Moscow’s intervention in Georgia.

An alliance statement said planning for the May 6-June 1 exercises began early last year, months before the war in Georgia.

Holding the exercises in Georgia will emphasize NATO solidarity with the country, which was promised eventual membership of the alliance last year -- a move which greatly angered Moscow.

NATO has since made clear membership for Georgia and another former Soviet republic, Ukraine, is a long way off given concerns among some European countries, including France and Germany, about the effect on relations with Moscow.

The alliance has stopped short of offering either country formal routes to membership but has launched long-term programs to encourage necessary reforms.

NATO said the exercises would be held 20 km (12 miles) east of the Georgian capital Tbilisi and were aimed at improving coordination between NATO members and their partner countries.

“The scenario is based on a fictitious United Nations mandated, NATO-led crisis response operation,” it said.

Moscow says it acted last August in its role as a regional peacekeeper to protect South Ossetia, most of whose people have been given Russian passports.

But Georgia and its Western allies accused Russia of going beyond that aim by pushing deep into Georgian territory.

Reporting by Pete Harrison and David Brunnstrom, editing by Ralph Gowling

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