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Cotton Marks Twenty-fifth Anniversary of Georgia’s Independence

June 9, 2016

I'm honored to be here to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Georgia's independence. When Georgia declared its independence from the Soviet Union, it may have appeared to the outside world as if the Georgian people were emerging from a long sleep.

But that perception would've been wrong. During the seventy years of Soviet rule, the Georgian people were not sleeping-they were waiting-waiting to throw off the brutal yoke of totalitarian oppression. You were a resilient people. Your culture survived. Your dedication to the arts and faith in God persevered. And your identity as Georgians-as a nation-did not fade. And in the end, in 1991, it proved triumphant.

Twenty-five years later, Georgia stands as a member of the Free World, and the United States is proud to stand with the people of Georgia.

These years have not been without sacrifice. Like so many young Americans, I served in Iraq and Afghanistan. We fought for security, for liberty, for peace. And we were not alone. In the deserts and the mountains, Georgia sent its finest to fight alongside us. I'm saddened by your loss of thirty-five soldiers in those wars, and I tender my nation's deepest condolences on their behalf. But I also celebrate their glorious sacrifice on the field of battle for a righteous cause.

Georgia is a young democracy, and the road to liberty is rarely smooth or direct. But let's leave no doubt: Georgia has traveled far along that road. When the memory of oppression and deprivation is fresh, the desire to fight for liberty, equality, and opportunity burns even fiercer. I join with many Americans when I say that the United States will continue to stand with the Georgian government to advance reforms and to build its institutions so it can fully realize the democratic aspirations of 1991.

Yet Georgia's chief challenges are not domestic. Eight years ago, Russia invaded your land and illegally occupies Abkhazia and South Ossetia to this day. Russia alone is responsible for this conflict, which can have only one just and peaceable solution: Russian withdrawal from Georgian territory and affirmation of Georgia's sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.

Unfortunately, Russian expansionism did not stop in Georgia: you were the canary in the coal mine. Six years later, Russia invaded Ukraine, illegally annexed Crimea, and still foments war in eastern Ukraine. Russia also continues to harass our Baltic and Eastern European partners.

Strangely, Russia has grown more menacing despite its weakness-or perhaps because of it. Vladimir Putin may wax nostalgic about the Soviet Empire, yet his government is merely a shadow of that regime. With a collapsing economy, a demographic death spiral, and few friends abroad, Putin's criminal regime seeks legitimacy now through aggression and frenzied nationalism. He depends upon Western weakness, confusion, and diffidence in the face of his aggression. He depends on Western leaders who call upon small countries to exercise restraint when they're being invaded.

Given the threats, the time for timidity and conciliation is past-in Georgia, in Ukraine, in Syria, and anywhere else Vladimir Putin seeks to undermine the peace.

This will require strength, confidence, and moral clarity. If the history of the last century is any guide, I have no doubt that we'll find all those qualities among the people of Georgia.

Thank you. God bless you, and God bless the independent and free nation of Georgia.