TBILISI NATO said on Friday it hoped to open a training center in Georgia by the end of the year, signaling a strengthening of its relationship with the former Soviet republic that is likely to antagonize Russia.
Georgia's government has long hoped to join the military alliance. But Russia, which fought a 2008 war with Georgia over two Moscow-backed breakaway regions, has said such a move would threaten its security.
The Kremlin last month accused NATO of turning another former Soviet state, Ukraine, into a "frontline of confrontation", amidst the worst standoff between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.
NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow said the new training center would be set up as part of a package of measures to boost Georgia's defense capabilities agreed at a summit in September.
"We are hoping that it can be operational by the end of this year," Vershbow told reporters in the Georgian capital Tbilisi.
NATO has already agreed in principle that Georgia should one day become a member. But analysts say the process has been delayed by member countries' reluctance to further provoke Russia.
Vershbow said Georgia was moving forward on its path towards membership but declined to set out a timetable.
NATO boosted its military presence in eastern Europe last year, saying it has evidence that Russia orchestrated and armed a pro-Russian rebellion in eastern Ukraine that followed Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and the overthrow of a Kremlin-backed president in Kiev.
Moscow denies supporting the rebellion.
Georgia, a South Caucasus country crossed by pipelines that carry Caspian oil and gas from Azerbaijan to Europe, has sent its troops to support the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
(Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Andrew Heavens)