TBILISI (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel vowed to help further strengthen Georgia’s military during a rare visit on Sunday to the former Soviet republic, which has watched Ukraine’s crisis with alarm after fighting its own brief war with Russia in 2008.
Georgia’s capital Tbilisi was Hagel’s first stop after the NATO summit in Wales, where Georgia was given an enhanced status that inched it closer to its goal of NATO membership — something fiercely opposed by Moscow.
“Russia’s actions here and in Ukraine pose a long-term challenge that the United States take very seriously,” Hagel told reporters after talks Georgia’s defense chief.
“But President (Vladimir) Putin’s actions have brought the United States and our friends in Europe, including Georgia, closer together.”
His comments came as a fledging ceasefire in Ukraine began to fray with resumed fighting in a five-month-old conflict between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.
Georgia’s Defense Minister Irakli Alasania said he wished the ceasefire would be successful but suggested Georgia’s own “bitter experience” with Russia did not inspire hope.
He portrayed the Ukraine conflict as an extension of Georgia’s conflict in 2008, when Russia fought a five-day war with Georgia over a rebel province. Moscow said it was an operation to protect people in the separatist territory of South Ossetia from attacks by Tbilisi’s troops, while Georgia and its Western allies accused Russia of an act of aggression.
Many Western politicians say Russia’s intervention in Georgia was a dress rehearsal for Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, which was annexed by Moscow after it sent in troops.
“Of course it’s more painful for us to see that the world was not able to put checks on the aggressive behavior of Russia and now we’re paying another price” in Ukraine, Alasania said.
Hagel called the package of measures from the NATO summit a “significant victory” for Georgia. It includes plans to build a military training center in Georgia, enhanced intelligence sharing and more joint exercises, a U.S. official said.
The United States and Georgia also discussed steps toward the sale of Blackhawk helicopters to Tbilisi, and Hagel renewed U.S. pledges to support Georgia’s bid for NATO membership.
“The eventual membership for Georgia in NATO is something that we’re committed to and the process to get there is important,” Hagel said before visiting Georgian and U.S. forces at a military training center outside Tbilisi.
Hagel said he was the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Tbilisi since 2003.
Hagel travels next to Turkey, where the focus will shift from concerns over Russia’s behavior to the U.S.-led efforts to roll back Islamic State militants, who have taken huge swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.
Georgia, which has enthusiastically sent troops to fight in Afghanistan, said on Sunday it was exploring ways to help as the United States builds a coalition against the Islamist fighters.
“Georgia can play a role, a supporting role in that, and we are also going to discuss further within our security cabinet how best (to) support the allies,” Alasania said.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Rosalind Russell