US soldiers help Georgians develop their national defense
TBILISI, Georgia — High in the hills, surrounded by vineyards and sheep, soldiers brave the stinging winds as they peer out of their freshly dug foxholes and unleash a barrage of machine gun fire that echoes through the canyons of central Georgia.
This has become routine for Georgian soldiers being advised by U.S. troops in defensive tactics to protect the small, mountainous country that shares its northern border with Russia.
Last week, amid heightened tensions in the region, soldiers with the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division began training the Georgians' part of the Georgia Defense Readiness Program, which is meant to bolster the country’s ability to defend itself against attack and modernize its military’s tactics.
“We have problems with our neighbor, Russia, and this gives our soldiers practice to increase their soldiering skills, and learn how to fight here in Georgia,” said Lt. Col. Vova Natenadze, commander of a battalion going through the training.
Several of the country’s northern provinces are still occupied by Russia, after a five-day war over the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions in 2008. Russian troops, which had been there as peacekeepers, remain there to this day, occupying roughly one-fifth of Georgian territory.
The training comes as Russian ships have been shadowing the destroyer USS Donald Cook on two recent deployments to the Black Sea, including during a port call in Batumi, Georgia, and an exercise with its coast guard.
This month, in the hills above Tblisi, U.S. troops have been mentoring and coaching a battalion of light infantrymen conducting war games.
The Americans are working closely with their counterparts to develop the defense program, with the hopes of building lasting improvements to the country’s military, said Maj. Jon-Paul Navarro, the officer in charge of the several dozen U.S. troops here.
“We’ve giving them our best tactics, techniques and procedures to develop this combat training center,” Navarro said.
The local soldiers spend much of their time digging foxholes and camouflaging their positions in order to ambush a mock opposition force modeling Russian tactics and made up of other Georgian soldiers.
Many going through the training fought against Russia in the 2008 conflict, including the training center’s commander, Col. Roman Janjulia.
Janjulia, whose father died nearly three decades ago fighting in the South Ossetia province now occupied by Russia, believes the American-led readiness program would have been beneficial to the country in its more recent conflict.
“I think this training would have helped in 2008,” Janjulia said. “And I think this will definitely help them in the future. They will not be vulnerable to the same threats. They will know how to oppose aggression and fight their war with minimum loss of personnel or equipment. They will protect this piece of terrain.”
Over the next few years, the country plans to send each of its nine light infantry battalions though the program, which began last spring, as the military here began to shift focus from Afghanistan deployments to the rising threats at home amid signs of an emboldened Russia.
“We’re looking at threats around the world, like Ukraine, Syria and the aggression we had in 2008, and we can say that this threat could come to us,” Janjulia said. “And we, as the Georgian army, should be ready to defend our people and our nation ... and this program especially helps us train for that.”
Though the war with Russia ended more than 10 years ago, tensions remain. A group of armed, masked men crossed into Georgian territory in 2015 in an attempt to move border markers further south, to allow Russia to control a mile-long stretch of land that includes an oil pipeline.
In addition to building up infantry skills, the program allows the Georgian Defense Ministry to assess its planning by trying out tactics on a mock battlefield. The center tests the plans and provides feedback to the ministry to help create improvements, Janjulia said.
“It’s not just the individual soldiers getting better, but the actual plan of how to defend Georgia is getting better,” he said.
Georgia is not a member of NATO, and its application has been blocked by European alliance members concerned about growing tensions with Russia. Still, Georgia has contributed a large contingent of troops to the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan. Soldiers here are confident their U.S. and European allies would step in to help them if hostilities did escalate between their country and its northern neighbor.
“Georgia wouldn’t stand alone,” Janjulia said. “We were not alone in 2008. There was support of other partners, which stood in front of Russia and told them to stop.”
Support for the troops here through efforts such as the readiness program also bolster their confidence, he said.
“They see the US troops and NATO partners, who are coming and advising us,” Janjulia said. “This is something our soldiers value.”