Mr. Speaker, as co-chair of the Georgia Caucus along with Congressman Gerald Connolly, I would like to take a moment to discuss the importance of a strong U.S.-Georgia relationship.
Our ally Georgia is a beacon of hope for democracy and capitalism in Eastern Europe. In a region full of turmoil, Georgia continuously strives to spread the ideologies of democracy and freedom to all. While there is still work to be done, Georgia has made many advances in recent years to strengthen democratic values.
Georgia has proved to be a strategic trade partner. U.S. trade with Georgia has increased over the past several years as Georgia continues to bolster its democratic and market-economy institutions. In light of this growth, it would be a smart move to initiate negotiations on a U.S.-Georgia Free Trade Agreement. In 2012, President Obama announced that Georgia and the U.S. had agreed to a high-level dialogue to strengthen trade relations, including the possibility of a free trade agreement. Now is the time to make this idea a reality.
Another critical reason why we must strengthen our ties with Georgia is because Russian aggression in the region is more threatening now than ever. In 2008, I was in Georgia and saw Russian tanks roll in to Georgia, occupying 25% of the country. Back then I knew Putin's radical agenda would continue to threaten our ally for years to come. Sadly, I have not been proven wrong. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is another example of Putin's greedy appetite for conquest. The best deterrent we can offer Georgia is the protection we have given to European countries in the past from Russian bullying: NATO membership. It is time for the United States to put our full weight of support into ensuring that Georgia is given NATO membership.
Even with the regional security threats stemming from Russia, Georgia has demonstrated time and again its commitment to being a force for good in the international community. For example, Georgia has provided more troops to the effort in Afghanistan than any other non-NATO member. Georgian troops have fought and died on the battlefield alongside our own American troops. We must recognize and reward their bravery and sacrifice. Georgia's ascension to NATO must be a priority for next summer's NATO conference.
Mr. Speaker, we all should recognize the importance of strengthening our relationship with Georgia. It is in our national security interests to support this ally, and it is our duty to ensure we foster a healthy, mutually beneficial partnership.
And that's just the way it is.