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Georgia’s president aims to deepen Nato ties on Black Sea security

Georgia’s new president wants to deepen ties with Nato on Black Sea security and even host a strategy and training hub in an effort to manage regional tensions highlighted by Russia’s capture last year of three Ukrainian navy vessels in the neighbouring Azov Sea.
Salomé Zourabichvili said her Caucasus country wanted more support from the western alliance on other areas including cyberdefence, although she stressed that Tbilisi sought to dampen confrontation with Moscow rather than stoke it. Ms Zourabichvili — a former French diplomat who took office last month — said she also aimed to sharply boost Black Sea trade with the EU, in line with her pledge during a bitterly fought election campaign for closer alignment with the European bloc. She said co-operation with Nato on cyber security and the possible creation of a “centre of excellence” to hone the strategic approach of the alliance and its partners to the Black Sea region would “be the complement to what we are doing in economic terms with the EU”. “In general, the more we get [from Nato] the more sense of security we get,” she said in an interview in Brussels, ahead of meetings at the headquarters of the western alliance, which Georgia aspires to join.
“But it has to be seen also in view of the level of confrontation in the Azov Sea. So we need also to decrease that level of confrontation, not to increase it.” Any increased interaction between Georgia, Nato or alliance members would probably provoke a response from Moscow, which sees the region as its sphere of influence. Russian forces were involved in a border war with Georgia in 2008 that saw two regions constituting roughly one-fifth of the country’s territory break away from Tbilisi with Moscow’s backing. 
The Azov Sea incident in November, which saw Russian forces seize three Ukrainian ships and 24 sailors, served to demonstrate Moscow’s naval dominance over Kiev and spooked other littoral neighbours. Turkey, until recently the Black Sea’s pre-eminent power, warned all coastal states to ensure stability in the region.  President Zourabichvili’s talks on Wednesday with Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, and other top officials, included discussion “about ideas to strengthen Black Sea security”, an alliance official said, without giving further details. But in an apparent attempt to manage expectations, the official said centres of excellence were not Nato entities and were usually located in alliance member countries.
Nato already shares data with Georgia’s coastguard and trains ship boarding teams. Alliance ships spent 120 days in the Black Sea last year, 50 per cent up on 2017. A joint exercise with Nato is planned in the country in March. Ms Zourabichvili said she was seeking to travel to Washington DC to meet US officials “as soon as I am invited” to gauge the White House’s approach towards her country and the Black Sea region. Georgia was interested to know more about mooted follow-up talks between President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, after their summit in Helsinki last year, she added. 
"I wouldn’t say that I’m worried,” Ms Zourabichvili said, when asked about whether she was concerned about the Trump White House’s relationship with the Kremlin. “But I certainly would say . . . that we need to be taken into account, that we need to be heard so that when — and if — the American president meets with the Russian president our issues are well on board.” Asked if she was confident Mr Trump would do this, she replied: “I will not comment.” Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 has shifted the Black Sea balance of power in favour of Russia. In addition to crippling Ukraine’s modest naval fleet based on the peninsula, the illegal land-grab gave Moscow the increased coastline to vastly increase its deployment of ships, radars and missile systems, which give it de facto military supremacy over the sea’s northern half. The arrival of destroyer USS Donald Cook this week in Batumi, a Georgian coastal city, is being closely monitored by Russian forces, its defence ministry said, and has been criticised by Russian lawmakers. Russia’s foreign ministry has criticised past joint Nato-Georgia military drills as contradictory to “regional security and stability”.