Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin has arrived in the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi for the first leg of a three-nation visit to the Black Sea region.
"The United States is committed to helping Georgia build its defense capacity and advance its Euro-Atlantic integration, and I’m looking forward to my meetings here," Austin tweeted on Monday.
Wheels down in Georgia. The United States is committed to helping Georgia build its defense capacity and advance its Euro-Atlantic integration, and I’m looking forward to my meetings here. pic.twitter.com/TJy25tfn90— Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (@SecDef) October 18, 2021
Austin also tweeted that he looked forward to meeting with his "counterparts and other senior officials" to reiterate the United States' commitment to its allies in the region.
He is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and other high officials of the Black Sea nation.
From Georgia, Austin will move on to Ukraine and Romania before ending up in Brussels on October 21 to take part in a two-day NATO summit.
The Biden administration needs to pay more attention to Georgia to head off a potential tilt toward Russia as well as China, said political scientist David Kramer at Florida International University, who is a former senior US diplomat.
"There is growing concern that the government is a little too flexible to Moscow," he said.
"Part of that is frustration with a lack of progress that they see toward integration with NATO."
In Ukraine, Austin will meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Minister of Defense Andrii Taran to reiterate Washington's support for Kiev's pro-West government.
The visit to Kiev will also serve as an opportunity for the US Defense Secretary to outline Ukraine’s defense requirements to meet its Euro-Atlantic needs, as well as regional cooperation among Black Sea allies and partners.
In Romania, Austin will meet with President Klaus Iohannis and Minister of National Defense Nicolae-Ionel Ciuca.
The visit to Romania also aims to bolster bilateral strategic partnership and strengthen NATO’s Eastern Flank as well as recognize Romania’s leadership in Black Sea security issues. Austin will also visit American servicemen based in the US airbase located in southeastern Romania near the Black Sea.
In Belgium, Austin will participate in his first in-person NATO defense ministerial summit.
During the summit, he will meet with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, as well as his European counterparts.
The United States and other NATO members have increased their military activities in Eastern Europe since the eruption of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 and Russia’s reunification with Crimea.
Following the reunification, which took place after a referendum, Russia deployed its military forces to Crimea and embarked on a major development program to build housing, restore airfields, and install new radars on the peninsula along the northern coast of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe. In addition, Russia deployed advanced air defense and anti-ship missiles to better monitor and control the surface and the skies above the Black Sea region.