TBILISI (REUTERS) - US Secretary of State John Kerry told ex-Soviet state Georgia that the United States would help it bolster its army as he reassured a close US ally days before a Nato summit that is expected to focus on the threat a resurgent Russia poses.
Kerry, on his first visit to Georgia as Secretary of State, made the commitment ahead of a Nato summit in Warsaw on Friday (July 8) at which members of the Western military alliance plan to announce action to deter possible Russian military aggression.
Georgia and former Soviet states such as Moldova and Ukraine have become increasingly concerned by Russia's intentions after the Kremlin annexed Ukraine's Crimea in 2014 and launched air strikes in Syria last year.
Moscow says such fears are unfounded and based on what it calls anti-Russian hysteria.
In a memorandum of understanding signed on Wednesday (July 6) by Kerry and Georgian Prime Minister Georgy Kvirikashvili, the US promised to bolster Georgia's ability to defend itself against potential threats.
That meant greater military and security cooperation, enhanced information sharing and help with building defence capacity such as improving combat readiness and supporting defence procurement, the document said.
"The United States stands firm in its commitment to Georgia's sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders," Kerry told reporters.
Washington wanted Georgia to be free to make its own choices on foreign and security policy, "free from external pressure and coercion", said Kerry.
Georgia, which is crisscrossed by strategically important oil and gas pipelines, fought and lost a short war with Russia in 2008. Moscow then recognised two breakaway pro-Kremlin Georgian regions - South Ossetia and Abkhazia - as independent countries, though most other countries have not.
Until now, US security support has focused on training Georgian troops for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Moscow has accused the West, notably Washington, of stirring anti-Russian feelings in former Soviet states, which it deems part of its own sphere of influence.
During his one-day visit, Kerry was due to meet President Georgy Margvelashvili. He was also expected to meet opposition politicians and to stress the importance of holding free and fair elections in October.
Kerry visits Ukraine on Thursday before heading to Warsaw to join US President Barack Obama for the Nato summit.
In Ukraine, Kerry's third visit there since Russia annexed Crimea, he will focus on the implementation of the Minsk peace accords and the country's reform agenda. It will be Kerry's first chance to meet new Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman.