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NATO: Training Center in Georgia Step to Membership

FILE - Georgian soldiers take part in a joint NATO-Georgia exercise at a military base in Vaziani, outside Tbilisi, Georgia, July 21, 2015.

NATO said a new training center opened in Georgia on Thursday would help the former Soviet republic to move closer to membership in the military alliance, a prospect sharply opposed by neighboring Russia.

Georgia's government has long hoped to join the 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 inauguration of the joint training and evaluation center will be a significant step deepening further our close cooperation," Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary-general, told reporters in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. "All these efforts help Georgia to move closer to your aspiration of NATO membership."

Stoltenberg said the center, opened at a military base outside Tbilisi, was part of a package of measures to boost Georgia's defense capabilities agreed at a summit last September.

The center will provide theoretical and practical training for Georgian soldiers and officers by NATO personnel.

With about 885 soldiers, Georgia is the second-largest contributor of troops after the United States to NATO's Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakly Garibashvili said the training center was not aimed against any country.

"This training center is not aimed against any neighboring country. It will serve regional security, peace and stability in the region," Garibashvili told reporters.

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.

Relations between NATO and Russia have been tense since last year's overthrow of a Kremlin-backed president in Kyiv and Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.

NATO has since boosted its military presence in eastern Europe, saying it has evidence that Russia orchestrated and armed a pro-Russian rebellion in eastern Ukraine. Moscow denies supporting the rebellion.