U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (L) meets with Georgian Minister of Defense Juansher Burchuladze (R) in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Monday. The two signed a new defense training agreement. Photo by EPA-EFE/STR
Oct. 18 (UPI) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signed a new security agreement with Georgia Monday, seeking to buttress relations with the Black Sea nation as it continues to face Russian troops in two of its regions.
Austin and his Georgian counterpart, Juansher Burchuladze, signed a memo in Tbilisi extending an existing Georgia defense cooperation program in the first stop of a three-nation tour of the region meant to reassert the U.S. commitment to their sovereignty "in the face of Russian aggression."
"I'm honored to join Minister Burchuladze in signing a memorandum of understanding on the Georgia Defense and Deterrence Enhancement Initiative," Austin said during a signing ceremony. "This initiative marks a new phase of our bilateral security cooperation, and it demonstrates the U.S. commitment to supporting Georgia."
Austin will also visit Ukraine and Romania on the Black Sea regional tour before attending the NATO Defense Ministerial in Brussels.
The new defense initiative is meant to help the Georgia Defense Ministry become more efficient, more effective and more interoperable with NATO, picking up where the expiring, $53 million agreement left off, the Pentagon said.
The pact is specifically aimed at helping Georgia "defend its sovereign territory," made necessary because Russian troops continue to occupy the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia 13 years after invading them, comprising 20% of Georgia's landmass.
"This is to enable them to resist future Russian aggression in their territory," a senior Pentagon official said.
"The United States condemns Russia's ongoing occupation of Georgia and its attempts to expand influence in the Black Sea region through military coercion and malign activities," Austin said Monday before a meeting with Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, according to the Washington Post.
"This is an important region, and its security and stability are crucial to fully realizing the vision that we share of a Europe that is whole and free, and at peace."
The meeting came as tensions between NATO and Moscow were on the rise.
The Russian government said Monday that it's closing its military liaison mission to NATO and recalled staffers to Moscow in retaliation for the alliance expelling several Russians last week and accusing them of espionage.
NATO said last week that it cut the staff of the Russian mission from 20 to 10, revoking accreditation for eight Russian diplomats and eliminating two vacant positions because it believed the diplomatic members were undeclared Russian spies.