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Georgians hold a rally in support of Ukraine after Russia's invasion, on Feb. 26.Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images

Georgia’s aspiration to join NATO was underscored this week by the country’s joint military exercises with the Western alliance, as Russia, which occupies about a fifth of Georgian territory, escalated its attacks on Ukraine.

Georgia has had a relationship with NATO since 1994, three years after the small country (population 3.7 million) won independence from the then-crumbling Soviet Union, and its desire for full membership has intensified since Russia, its northern neighbour, began amassing troops along its border with Ukraine late last year.

In an interview Tuesday, Irakli Beraia, chairman of the Georgian parliament’s Defence and Security Committee, said his country would join NATO today if it could. “Georgia faces an existential threat from Russia,” he said. “The Russian threat against Ukraine amplifies the threat against Georgia. If Russia succeeds in Ukraine, we think we are next.”

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Support for full NATO membership among Georgians is very high and has climbed since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. Georgia has a small military – about 37,000 personnel – and knows it could not last long against a Russian onslaught.

“There is no guarantee of [Georgia’s] safety without NATO membership,” said Levan Ioseliani, the vice-speaker of the Georgian parliament and a member of the Citizens Party, in an interview. “We are all united with NATO in parliament. There are no pro-Russian parties here.”

The joint military exercises began March 14 and are to end Friday. They are led by the Georgian Defence Forces and involve about 600 personnel. More than half of them are from Georgia, with the rest from 19 NATO member countries (Canada is not among them) and four “allied” member states, including Sweden and Moldova.

NATO said the exercises involve “crisis management scenarios” such as cyberattacks and will, for the first time, involve maritime and special operations elements.

The exercises in Georgia are conducted once every three years; the current ones were planned well before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Still, the war there means this year’s exercises carry heightened symbolic significance.

Alander Vinnikov of the Netherlands, the head of the NATO liaison office in Tbilisi, said “Georgia is a valued partner of NATO and has contributed for many years to NATO-led missions … Georgia has clearly stated that integration into NATO is a top foreign policy objective.”

Many Georgians fear a Russian invasion if Moscow’s campaign to conquer Ukraine succeeds. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and took control of two regions – South Ossetia, in the north-central part of the country, and Abkhazia, in the far northwest, along the Black Sea. Russia established military bases in both regions, which Georgia considers illegally occupied territories.

Since then, the relationship between Russia and Georgia has been exceedingly tense, especially since Georgia has been openly courting full NATO membership in order to qualify for the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 5, which deems an attack on any NATO member an attack on all members.

Georgia’s NATO aspirations are so serious that they are written into the constitution. The country also wants to become a member of the European Union, even though it does not share a border with any EU country.

Mr. Putin has made it well known that he strongly opposes NATO’s eastward expansion. In April, 2008, he was invited to the NATO summit in Bucharest, where he alarmed the delegates with his condemnation of the military alliance’s long-term plans to extend membership to Ukraine and Georgia. “No Russian leader could stand idly by in the face of steps toward NATO membership for Ukraine,” he said. “That would be a hostile act towards Russia.”

Four months later, Russia invaded Georgia and seized South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Georgia’s status as an “enhanced opportunity partner” of NATO was recently renewed for another three years. That status has been given to six non-NATO countries – Georgia, Ukraine, Sweden, Finland, Jordan and Australia – with which NATO is comfortable holding military exercises.

NATO’s leadership cannot choose to accept Georgia into its club. All 30 member countries must agree to admit a new member. “We cannot put any time frame on membership,” Mr. Vinnikov said.

NATO will not say whether Georgia’s fear of another Russian invasion will speed up its membership bid, though both sides seem to be moving closer every year. “NATO supports very openly Georgian sovereignty and independence,” said Javier Colomina, NATO’s deputy assistant secretary for political affairs. “The military exercises in Georgia could have been cancelled by either side. But they have not been cancelled. This is a message of support for Georgia.”

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