Joint Press Conference with Secretary of Defense Austin and Minister of Defense Buchuladze

Secretary Austin: Good Afternoon everyone and thank you for joining us. Let me start by thanking Minister Burchuladze for hosting me and for extending such a warm welcome on my first visit to Georgia as Secretary of Defense. I wanted to be in person here today because the United States values Georgia as a strong strategic partner. And our support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering. Now, for more than three years, the Georgia Defense Readiness Program has been a foundation of our efforts to build Georgia’s defense capacity and readiness. That program is set to conclude at the end of this year, so today I’m honored to join the Minister to announce the Georgia Defense and Deterence Enhancement Initiative. This initiative will serve as a focal point for our security cooperation between the United States Department of Defense, the Georgian Ministry of Defense, and the Georgian Defense Forces. This marks an exciting new phase of bilateral security cooperation between our countries. We are going to build upon the Georgia Defense Readiness Program by continuing institutional reform in the defense sector by strengthening the capabilities and the capacities required for effective deterrence and defense, by fostering interoperability with NATO, and modernizing and developing the Georgian Ministry of Defense and the Georgian Defense Forces. This initiative will advance our shared security interests and strengthen our partnership. The success of this initiative will require close cooperation between our countries so that we stay on track toward our common goals. The memorandum of understanding that the Minister and I just signed acknowledges our work together, and it demonstrates our shared commitment to the success of this initiative. It also underscores the Department of Defense’s enduring policy of helping Georgia to defend itself, to deter aggression, and to further its Euro-Atlantic integration. At the same time, the Georgian government must do its part by leveraging U.S. support to strengthen Georgia’s democracy and to make fundamental reforms to bring Georgia even closer to the West.

Now, before I conclude, I want to thank the Minister, the Georgian Defense Forces, and the Georgian people for their steadfast support of U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan. As a veteran of the Afghan war, I’m especially grateful for all that you’ve done. Georgia played an outsized role in this mission. Georgian troops bravely served shoulder to shoulder with their American comrades in arms, building bonds between our countries that transcend cultural and linguistic differences. Georgia has paid a heavy price with 32 killed in action and 293 wounded in Afghanistan. The United States honors their sacrifice, and we’re deeply grateful to all of the Georgian people, to all the troops who served, to those who answered the call to serve, and their families. Our collective effort in Afghanistan is a testament to the strength of our strategic partnership and our shared interests and values. So, thank you again Mr. Minister. I’m grateful for your incredible leadership and for your personal commitment to our security cooperation in our larger defense relationship. Thank you very much!

Imedi TV – Question about the conducted reforms in terms of increasing the possibility of becoming a member of NATO

Secretary Austin: As you’ve seen, as we’ve all seen, Georgia continues to make progress in terms of military reform and capabilities. I had an excellent brief with the leadership this afternoon, and it was really helpful to see things through their eyes and talk to them about some of the things they’re working on to improve. And I think the initiative, the MOU that we just signed will help us to continue along the path of improving the Georgian MOD and the Georgian Defense Forces, and also give them additional capability to train their forces, and to also write doctrine and promulgate doctrine. Regarding democracy, the United States has always been a strong supporter of Georgia’s democratic development since independence, and we consistently seek to strengthen its democratic institutions. Our embassy noted some problems with the recent elections, but we also expressed confidence in Georgia’s ability to improve as time goes forward.

CBS News – Question about the reasons for the visit and whether there is a threat to the U.S.-Georgia defense relationship now that the war in Afghanistan is over.

Secretary Austin: My trip here is to reassure and recognize our partnerships. This is a critical region to us, and we have many shared interests, and of course, shared values, and we see a number of opportunities for security cooperation. Again, I’m here to reassure and recognize the tremendous value of our partnership. In terms of Georgia’s contribution to both Iraq and Afghanistan, I would reemphesize the critical role that they played in terms of assiting us and working shoulder to shoulder with us. I served in Iraq with them as well as in Afghanistan, and I can tell you they’re incredible soldiers, and Goergia has every right to be proud of that contribution and the way they continue to operate. You know, those two wars don’t define our relationship—again, we have shared interests that we will continue to work on and strengthen our partnership as we go forward. Again, I’m here to reassure Georgia and work to strengthen the great relationship that we already have.

Mtavari – Question about whether the sides discussed the changed balance of power in the Caucasus region and Russia’s growing presence, and whether participation in 3+3 format would be damaging to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic path.

Secretary Austin: I’m sorry but because of the microphone problems he didn’t translate the first part of your question. The second part of your question I was able to understand, and it’s in reference to the 3+3 proposal. On that issue, I would just say that Russia, which currently occupies 20% of Georgia’s territory, should focus on honoring its 2008 ceasefire commitments before promoting any new discussion platforms. We certainly encourage the countries of the South Caucasus to work together to resolve disputes and to strengthen regional cooperation.

Fox News – Question about China launching nuclear capable hypersonic missile, and whether the Secretary is concerned about it.

Secretary Austin: Thanks for asking the question, but I’m not going to comment on those specific reports. What I can tell you is that we watch closely China’s development of armaments and advanced capabilities, and systems that will only increase tensions in the region. You heard me say before that China is a challenge and we’re going to remain focused on that.