U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, for the first leg of a three-nation visit to the Black Sea region to show allies and partner states support in the face of "Russian aggression."
Austin landed in the Caucasus nation early on October 18 for the first visit to the country by a Pentagon chief since 2014.
Austin will also travel to Ukraine and Romania before heading to the NATO Defense Ministerial in Brussels on October 21-22.
"We are reassuring and reinforcing the sovereignty of countries that are on the front lines of Russian aggression," the Defense Department’s news agency cited a senior official as saying on October 17.
The visit will be a welcome event among the Georgian leadership, which has long sought to become a full member of NATO. It is currently a NATO partner state.
Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in 2008 and Russian troops have remained in Georgia's regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moscow opposes any effort to increase Georgia’s status within NATO.
In July, joint military exercises involving about 4,000 troops from 15 allied and partner countries, including the United States, took place in Georgia.
The multinational Agile Spirit exercises were led jointly by the Georgian Defense Forces and the U.S. Army Europe and Africa.
U.S. officials have in the past spoken positively about Georgia's potential for NATO membership.
U.S. officials said Austin will meet with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and Defense Minister Juansher Burchuladze to express appreciation for Georgia's contribution to the Western effort in the two-decade war in Afghanistan.
Some 20,000 Georgian soldiers served as part of a U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2021, with the Caucasus nation reporting 32 deaths among its troops.
The U.S. Defense Department said in a statement prior to Austin's departure that he would meet with Georgian leaders "to reaffirm support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and underscore the importance of the U.S.-Georgia strategic partnership in addressing regional and global security challenges. The leaders will also discuss bilateral security cooperation and encourage greater regional cooperation in the Black Sea."