VAZIANI - Georgia and the United States on Sunday launched their biggest ever joint military exercises in the latest show of support for the tiny Caucasus nation that has squared off against Russia. The start of the drills comes a day ahead of a two-day visit to Tbilisi by US Vice President Mike Pence during which he is expected to reiterate Washington’s backing for Georgia’s wish to join NATO.

Some 800 Georgian and 1600 US troops are taking part in the Noble Partner 2017 drills — the largest ever in the Caucasus nation since it fought a brief war with Russia in 2008. Georgia’s Defence Minister Levan Izoria called the scale of exercises “unprecedented”, insisting they will “make clear the support for Georgia by the NATO member states, especially the US.”

The US has sent some of its M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks and M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles across the Black Sea for the drills, which will last until August 12.

The exercises will also include 400 servicemen from Armenia, Germany, Slovenia, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Kingdom. Georgia’s bid to join NATO has angered its Soviet-era master Russia and the confrontation culminated in a brief war over the Moscow-backed separatist region of South Ossetia.

After the war that saw Georgia’s small military routed in just five days, Moscow recognised South Ossetia and another breakaway province Abkhazia as independent states and moved in thousands of troops. At a 2008 summit in Bucharest, NATO leaders made a formal pledge that Georgia “will become a NATO member” but, wary of alienating an increasingly assertive Russia, have so far refused to put the country on a formal membership path.