VAZIANI, Georgia — An American M1A2 Abrams tank fired at distant targets as it sped through the green hills of a military base that until 2001 was controlled by Russian troops.
The symbolic deployment of the Army's largest weapon system to this former Soviet republic was part of Exercise Noble Partner which has involved hundreds of American, British and Georgian troops and runs through Thursday.
Designed to bring the Georgian military closer to NATO, the drill comes at a time of growing tension between the Western alliance and the Kremlin.
The Vaziani Training Area where the drills took place is just 45 miles from the Russian border — and the joint exercises infuriated Moscow.
"We regard this ongoing 'exploration' of Georgia’s territory by NATO forces as a provocative step aimed at escalating the military and political situation in the South Caucasus," the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
It's not the first time Georgia has caused friction between the White House and the Kremlin. Following several wars, the two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia had their independence formally recognized by Russia. The U.S. still sees them as belonging to its ally Georgia.
In 2008, Russian and Georgian forces fought over South Ossetia. The conflict ended with a cease-fire agreement, but Russian troops continue to be stationed there.
Russia, meanwhile, has continued to pester its military rivals.
On Tuesday, Britain's Air Force scrambled fighter jets for the second time in a week to investigate unidentified aircraft near Estonia's airspace. The Baltic country is a NATO member and a former Soviet republic that has been a constant source of friction between Moscow and the West. In both cases, the aircraft turned out to be Russian.
And last month, Russian war planes buzzed a U.S. destroyer in the Baltic Sea. A U.S. defense official described the maneuvers were "unsafe" and "unprofessional" — citing them as among the "most aggressive" acts by the Russians in some time.
U.S. military officials at this week's exercise declined to comment on Russia's recent actions, but Col. Jeffrey Dickerson told NBC News the war games would bring Georgia closer to NATO.
While not a member of that alliance, Georgia is is already a contributing partner in Afghanistan. Officials said the drills will allow the country to contribute to NATO’s expanded quick-reaction force.
"That is the first time we’ve been able to bring M1s into Georgia and to continue to enhance that interoperability," said Dickerson, who is co-director Noble Partner. "A lot of effort has to go into moving large organizations and thus far we’ve been successful."
The equipment was shipped across the Black Sea and transported by rail to the military training area.
For the Georgian military, the exercise has become a source of prestige.
"We are proud to have them here and it’s a unique opportunity to train with these advanced troops and this advanced equipment," Lt. Col. Beka Ambroladze said.
He added that Noble Partner was strategically important for Georgia’s military — which in two decades has turned from a creaking, Soviet-style force into a modern outfit that can work directly with NATO.
That change is personified in Georgian soldiers like 2nd Lt. Levan Lanchava, who spent four years in the U.S. and graduated from New York's West Point military academy.
"It gives me the ability to come back here and introduce some of the ideas, whether it’s military tactics or general officers' culture," he said.