Marines Train in Georgia With Russia on Their Minds

A Georgian soldier shows his comrades how to move forward during an infantry drill, Tuesday, July 14, 2015, during Agile Spirit 15, a training exercise in Vaziani, Georgia. (Photo: Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes.)

VAZIANI TRAINING AREA, Georgia -- Georgian Capt. Kakhaber Shpetishvili’s focus in recent years has been the fight in Afghanistan, where he has battled side by side with U.S. Marines. But on this old Soviet base pockmarked from bombs dropped by Russian jets seven years ago, a shift is now underway as multinational troops confront a new threat.

At this year’s Agile Spirit exercise, NATO’s new push toward rapid-response missions and countering a well-armed conventional force is front and center. Russia may not be named as an adversary in the training scenarios enacted here, but Moscow’s moves in the region are on everyone’s mind.

“Absolutely the purpose is to prepare our units for quick response,” said Shpetishvili, who served in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in 2013. “That’s why doing this training here is symbolic. You can look around anywhere and see the effects of Russian bombs.”

In 2008, Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war over the latter’s South Ossetia region, where Russia-backed separatists had established de facto independence with Moscow’s backing. The development of a similar scenario last year in Ukraine, where Moscow is providing military and moral support to separatists, has prompted NATO and the United States to reinforce the alliance’s eastern flank to guard against further Russian aggression.

More than 200 U.S. Marines from the Corps’ Black Sea Rotational Force are now working with a battalion of Georgian troops and small contingents from Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria. Traditionally, the annual exercise has been a bilateral, Afghan-focused effort between the Marines and Georgians — a non-NATO state — but now the exercise is under the NATO flag as more nations take part.

Georgia has been one of the largest contributors of troops to the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, although not a NATO member, and is now the second largest after the United States.

“Currently, with what our big neighbor (Russia) is doing, it is important to come together and train ourselves and to make sure we are speaking the same military language,” said Latvian Lt. Col. Reinis Bajko, an exercise planner taking part in Agile Spirit. “That is the job of the military, and in this case, it is a multinational job.”

As troops walk the grounds at Vaziani, just south of Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi, reminders of the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia — which some analysts regard as a prelude to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine — are scattered about. At the time, Russian jets dropped bombs on the training ground during a blitz that routed Georgian forces.

Now, Russian forces occupy territory in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where tensions still run high. Earlier this week, Georgia accused Russia of claiming more territory by moving a fence at the South Ossetian border deeper into Georgia, effectively shifting a BP gas pipeline into occupied land.

At Vaziani, Marines are coaching Georgians on the finer points of outfoxing an enemy with the capabilities of a conventional army.

Marine Capt. Frank Walker, who is leading the group of Marines on the ground, said this year’s Agile Spirit exercise marks a shift from the counterterrorism tactics that were of primary importance in recent years.

“We’re changing the focus of our training with more attention to conventional offensive and defensive type maneuvers,” he said.

For the Marines, Agile Spirit 2015 is also an extension of a long and deep relationship with Georgian troops. Since 2009, the Corps has been a near constant presence in Georgia, preparing scores of battalions to deploy into Afghanistan, where Georgian forces have fought side by side with Marines.

Unlike many NATO members, Georgia has sent forces without so-called caveats that put limits on direct fighting. Though Marines continue to train Georgians for Afghan missions, the end of combat operations there means more focus is inevitably shifting to local concerns.

Lt. Col. William P. Van Zwoll, the lead planner for the Georgia Deployment Program at Marine Forces Europe, said the years of experience in Afghanistan are likely to serve Georgian troops well into the future.

“Now they have combat-tested battalions. We have seen that steady progress,” Van Zwoll said in an interview at Marine Forces Europe headquarters in Germany. “Right now they are very capable and well trained.”

Since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine last year, NATO has been working to transform itself into a more nimble military alliance. That’s meant beefing up its response force from 13,000 to as many as 40,000 troops. Despite not being a NATO member, Georgia already has pledged troop contributions to that force.

NATO membership, however, still remains ellusive. While Georgia is formally on a pathway to membership, some allies, such as Germany and France, see the addition of Georgia as an unnecessary provocation of Russia.

Those reservations raise questions about Georgia’s long-term prospects for membership.

“There is a small but increasing number of people who are frustrated with Western policy toward Georgia. People feel like Georgia was promised a lot,” said Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics in Tbilisi. “With Russian troops 40 kilometers from Tbilisi, Russia is our biggest security threat, and most of the Georgians see the link to

NATO as a security guarantee. Without that, nobody will care about Georgia.”

In the field, however, questions about future NATO membership are an afterthought, as troops move in formation across a training area containing old abandoned Soviet barracks and weapons depots.

Marine Sgt. John Cohee was tasked with critiquing a Georgian platoon as it maneuvered through a mock ambush. The trick to multinational training is offering critiques without insult, he said.

“I’m not really trying to change their tactics, but maybe help them do things in a way that is a little bit safer,” Cohee said.

As he watched a team of Georgians move across an open field, Cohee said that it might be a good idea to lay down suppressive fire from an unexposed position rather than firing from open terrain. During the postambush briefing, he offered encouragement before delivering bits of advice, which the Georgians concurred with.

“You have to start with what they did well. And to tell you the truth, they are actually a lot better trained than I thought they would be,” he said.

At another training ambush, the tables were turned, and the Georgians watched as a Marine foot patrol got hit.

As the phony fire from the “opposition force” poured in, the Marines countered with their own “bang, bang, bangs,” vocalizing the return fire. One Marine, with each fake gunshot, screamed. “Die mother (expletive), die!”

The Marines received good marks from the Georgians for fighting through the ambush, but one Georgian observer said that they could have done a better job of protecting their rear flank.

“It is quite rare for Georgians to be teaching Marines. We are learning from each other,” said Georgian Sgt. Paata Jabakhidze, a veteran of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As for what he wants out of NATO’s Agile Spirit exercise, Jabakhidze said: “We have one goal. It is to be ready to react to any kind of threat. You have to always practice if you want to be prepared.”