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Ambassador Degnan's Speech at the Rondeli Security Conference
May 18, 2023

Good morning. It is a pleasure to take part once again in this distinguished conference. My compliments and thanks to Eka and her team for organizing another excellent Rondeli Security Conference. I regret my colleague Ambassador Brink is unable to join us. She and her team, and most of Kyiv, spent the night in bunkers while Russia again fired missiles at innocent civilians.

Our world has changed in fundamental ways since Russia launched a brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last year–a dramatic and costly escalation of the Russian 2014 invasion and effort to dominate and subvert its neighbor. We see every day that the Ukrainian people are fighting for their very survival as an independent country and culture. The scale and ruthlessness of Russia’s brutality in Ukraine is appalling, but it’s not an isolated example. It is part of a larger pattern of Russian aggression and revanchism.

The American diplomat George Kennan wrote in the 1950s, “The jealous and intolerant eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies, and the neighbors of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.” That is a choice no country should be forced to make. Ukraine does not want to be Russia’s vassal and did not choose to be Russia’s enemy. It is President Putin who launched a barbaric war of aggression in a bid to dominate and eliminate the independence, sovereignty, and cultural identity of its neighbor.

We see now that Putin’s plan to build an empire began in Georgia in 2008. Georgia suffered and continues to suffer from Russia’s aggression—with the 2008 war, the continued occupation by Russia of 20 percent of Georgia’s territory, the detention and harassment of Georgian citizens along the ABL, and Russia’s refusal to comply with its obligation under the ceasefire agreement.

Although many of us didn’t see it at the time, the 2008 war signaled the end of an all-too-brief era that started with Gorbachev’s perestroika and ended with the return of an aggressive, revanchist Russia. We wanted to believe Russia had changed. What we now see is that Kremlin aggression towards its neighbors is part of a long, historical pattern. Russia’s invasions of Ukraine and Georgia in the 21st century followed its invasions in the 19th and 20th centuries. These invasions are part of Russia’s systematic efforts to undermine its neighbors. The question today is whether Russia CAN change.

Over the last 250 years, the Kremlin has sought to dominate Georgia and Ukraine – their language, religion, cultures, and national identities. The Kremlin has demonstrated time and again it will not accept independence or democracy within its own arrogant notion of a sphere of influence, and that it will use a variety of tools–military, political, economic, informational, cyber –to divide countries from within, and from their partners, to leave them isolated, distracted, and easier to control.

Unlike Putin, we do not choose conflict. The United States has tried time and time again—perhaps naively–to develop a productive relationship with Russia and support its transition to a democratic, market-based economy. We thought a mutually-beneficial relationship was possible. It seems now we were wrong.

Out of the horrors of two World Wars, the international community built a rules-based system that transformed Europe into a largely peaceful, remarkably prosperous continent. Russia had the opportunity to be part of that transformation and lift its population up, too. Tragically, President Putin chose a different path. His goal, perhaps from the very start, is subjugation, and the restoration of a Russian “glory” that is long gone.

Faced with the oppression that comes with closer alignment with Putin, it seems glaringly obvious that integration with the West is the best choice for Georgia to preserve its independence and the freedoms Georgians have worked so hard to restore for the past 30 years since the end of Soviet oppression; the only choice to protect Georgia’s rich cultural heritage; the only choice to ensure peace, stability, and prosperity.

The choice seems obvious. The polls show over 85% of Georgians support EU membership and over 75% support NATO membership. But we have seen that Georgia’s European future is under assault from an aggressive propaganda campaign designed to keep people afraid—afraid that Russia will retaliate if Georgia pursues a European future. Perhaps in exchange for a policy of appeasement, we see the restoration of direct flights and the lifting of the visa regime; we see a sort of charm offensive by the Kremlin to start to normalize relations with Georgia and try to woo Georgians away from her Western partners. Georgia’s history with Russia is filled with centuries of broken promises and humiliating oppression—those memories may be enough to inoculate Georgians against this latest Kremlin effort to pull Georgia back into Russia’s shadow. But we cannot take that for granted. The United States and Europe must stand firmly with Georgia, as we are with Ukraine, in the face of what is in many ways a continuation of the 2008 war in a new hybrid format.

When Russia’s latest war against Ukraine ends–and it will end in Ukrainian victory–we can look to Georgia as a warning about the tactics Russia will continue to employ, after the fighting has stopped. In the fifteen years since 2008, Russia has aggressively deployed indirect malign influence–such as leveraging or creating political fractures–to divide and weaken Georgia politically and economically at a time when the country should be united as never before

Our answer to Russia’s strategy of fear and paralysis, then as now, is to support the tenacity and European aspirations of the Georgian people. In 2008, we supported Georgia by sending warships and aircraft to deter Russian attacks. The U.S. Congress immediately provided one billion dollars in assistance and has continued to fund Georgia’s efforts to build a secure, prosperous democracy. Despite Russia’s best attempts to undermine America’s relationship with the Georgian people, we and our Georgian partners have remained determined to achieve our shared goal of building a country that protects Georgians’ basic freedoms and respects their constitutionally protected human rights. And Georgia has made impressive progress.

Today, we see that the majority of Georgians know exactly where they are going–they want to be a part of a prosperous, secure, free Europe. In spite of Russia’s ceaseless attempts to spread fear and paranoia, and try to control what it considers its “near abroad,” our best tool to counter malign Russian influence and the charm offensive that now seems underway remains our support for the people of Georgia. Throughout Georgian history, it has been the Georgian people who opposed imperial Russian ambitions, then Soviet repression, and then Russian aggression. And it will be up to the Georgian people, ultimately, to counter Russia’s imperial ambitions.

Georgia’s motto is dzala ertobashi–strength in unity. That is a lesson Georgians learned the hard way over centuries of being divided by invaders and oppressors. But Georgians showed they understood the meaning of dzala ertobashi in 1921, in 1978, in 1989, and in 1992. They showed they understood in 2008, and again in March 2023. Georgia is strongest when its people are united with a shared vision of this country’s future. Today, when the goal of European integration is as close as it has ever been, we must stand together with Georgians and defeat Russia’s campaign of fear with a message of promise and a determination to succeed.

All of our countries are forced to make hard decisions because of Putin’s attempt to disrupt the stability and democratic foundation that has improved the lives of so many around the world. Georgia, perhaps more than any of us, is faced with difficult choices. We must stand together against a rughless aggressor to make it clear once again that independent, sovereign nations cannot be conquered by force. There is simply too much at stake for us to allow fear to divide us. We must take Georgia’s motto—dzala ertobashi—as our own and stand united and strong.