At a time when relations between certain NATO allies appears to be strained, the alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was in the small South Caucasus nation of Georgia to reassure the country’s military establishment that the former Soviet republic’s ambition to one-day join the Western military bloc remains a part of NATO’s long-term plans.

Stoltenberg was in the Georgian capital Tbilisi to attend a 12-day joint military exercise involving 24 of the 29 NATO members, as well as the Georgian Armed Forces. During his visit to the Krtsanisi National Training Center near Tbilisi, Stoltenberg praised Georgia’s contribution to the alliance’s missions around the world, despite the fact that the impoverished country of 3.5 million people has not been given a timetable for their possible accession into NATO.

“We will continue working together to prepare for Georgia’s NATO membership,” Stoltenberg said, adding that the 29 other members of the alliance had “clearly stated that Georgia will become a member of NATO.”

Georgia is also the largest non-NATO contributor to the alliance’s training mission in Afghanistan and it contributes to the NATO Response Force. More than a decade ago, under the previous pro-Western government of Mikheil Saakashvili, Tbilisi sent significant numbers of troops to Iraq following the US-led invasion of the country.

Tbilisi’s commitment to joining NATO has become a major flashpoint in the country’s often fraught relationship with its former imperial masters in Moscow. Russia has responded forcefully to Georgia’s drive towards further Western integration by first imposing a harsh economic blockade of key agricultural products and the build-up of thousands of Russian troops in Georgia’s Kremlin-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“We are not accepting that Russia or any other power can decide what members can do,” said Stoltenberg while commenting on Georgia’s accession aspirations, before adding that NATO will never recognize Russia’s occupation of either Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

“We call on Russia to end its recognition of the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to withdraw its forces,” said Stoltenberg.

During his visit, Stoltenberg held talks with several high-level officials, including Georgia’s controversial French-born president, Salome Zurabishvili, and Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze, a 36-year-old neophyte who has been in his current position as chief executive for only nine months. Zurabishvili, a former French diplomat under Jacques Chirac, has drawn the ire of Georgia’s pro-Western opposition for her poor Georgian language abilities and for constantly repeating Moscow’s talking points that blame Georgia for the loss of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Stoltenberg’s talks with two top officials from the ruling Georgian Dream party comes at a critical time for Georgia. Public opinion in recent years has noticeably shifted from the defiantly pro-Western mood that followed its five-day war with Russia in August 2008, which saw Vladimir Putin’s troops come within 60 kilometres of Tbilisi, to a decidedly more conservative and Kremlin-friendly sentiment that has been deeply influenced by Georgia’s unelected national leader, the pro-Russian billionaire and founder of the Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Enjoying a near-monopoly in terms of legislative power, Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream has allowed widespread corruption to take hold in the country after Georgia spent years trying to eradicate the epic-scale graft and oraganised crime syndicates that crippled the country for the first dozen years of its existence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991.

Both NATO and the European Union have grown increasingly concerned about the rollback of democratic reforms, the independence of the country’s courts, the rule-of-law, and a weakening investment climate – all of which are key requirements to join either bloc – in the seven years since the Georgian Dream came to power.

Despite the concerns, Stoltenberg reiterated NATO’s commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity and, while attending a joint press conference with Bakhtadze – Ivanishvili’s third handpicked prime minister since December 2015 – condemned Russia’s opposition to Georgia’s NATO accession plans, as well as Moscow’s build-up of combat and strategic rockets forces in the Black Sea region following Putin’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

No timetable for Georgia’s membership in NATO has been set. The alliance is unlikely to move quickly towards adopting a new member so shortly after it welcomed Montenegro, a Yugoslav republic, into the bloc in June 2017 and is slated to bring North Macedonia into the fold after the newly re-named country ended its 27-year-old name dispute with Greece late last year.