Armed Forces Club, Athens
Thursday, September 23, 2021, 10:05 a.m.
Good Morning all. Colleagues, friends, first of all I would like to thank the George C. Marshall Center along with our great partners at ELIAMEP for organizing today’s seminar as a personal follow-up to the excellent virtual event we hosted in March.
Since our last meeting, the global pandemic has only accelerated competition between the great powers. One idea I can give you today is to stress that Russia and the People’s Republic of China are two global players who have very different views of how the international system should be organized. We are in the early stages of a future generation competition. One of the greatest challenges we face in this competition is joining forces with friends and allies in the region to encourage Moscow and Beijing to respect the rules-based international order that brings prosperity and peace to all of our countries created. We have to make sure that our democracies can survive this global competition.
Here in Greece and around the world, Russia continues to spread misinformation and sow discord in our democracies. Russia’s growing military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, from bases in Syria to Wagner mercenaries in Libya, is deeply destabilizing. We also oppose Russia’s attempts to fuel instability by breaking the unity of the Orthodox Church and manipulating energy resources to extort political concessions. Russia continues to actively support the authoritarian Lukashenka regime in Belarus, which brutally cracked down on dissent following last year’s controversial elections, including the hijacking of the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to arrest opposition blogger Raman Pratasevich.
The United States shares EU concerns about Russia’s growing authoritarianism and will continue to raise concerns about Russia’s human rights violations and actions against religious minorities, independent civil society and the media. Then there is cyber. In April, the Biden Harris government imposed extensive new sanctions on Russia in response to the sophisticated “SolarWinds” cyberattack that penetrated American government agencies and corporations as well as governments and companies in the EU and NATO, including here in Greece.
In the longer term, we face the challenge of PRC propaganda and disinformation campaigns in the Eastern Mediterranean as the Chinese government works to control Eurasian trade and transportation routes through its Belt and Road initiative. China has shown that it is ready to do whatever it takes to gain a technological edge, including intellectual property theft, engaging in industrial espionage, and forcing technology transfer. Most recently, in July, the US, EU, UK and NATO exposed the PRC government’s malicious cyber activities aimed at undermining the economic and national security of America and Europe. The specific attack targeted Microsoft Exchange servers and affected at least 30,000 companies worldwide.
After all, both Russia and China have taken advantage of the pandemic to turn misinformation into weapons and sow confusion and division in Euro-Atlantic institutions. Last month, Facebook removed hundreds of accounts spreading Russian-targeted disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, including false claims linking the Biden-Harris government to the idea of forced vaccination.
On the eastern Mediterranean front of this global competition, Greece has become a critical American ally. American and Greek perspectives in this region are more aligned than ever before. Our countries share a common interest in building peace, stability and prosperity in the eastern Mediterranean, the western Balkans and beyond. Defense and security ties between the US and Greece are getting stronger every day. We are fully in agreement on questions of energy and climate change. And Greece’s proactive foreign policy agenda is building a network of regional cooperation that will help advance our shared strategic goals.
The geopolitics of this region has grown as a result of Greece’s systematic efforts to establish new relationships with successive governments to establish new relationships with Israel and Cyprus, as well as with other major actors in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, including Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, and Libya India. This new geography of Greek foreign policy is changing the dynamics in the region and opening up new avenues for cooperation, particularly in the areas of regional connectivity for clean energy, security and counter-terrorism cooperation.
In the north of Greece, meanwhile, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of the Prespes Agreement, which has loosened Greece’s relations with North Macedonia and thus with the entire Western Balkans. We strongly support Greece’s leadership in efforts in the Western Balkans to break the Gazprom monopoly in Central Europe and eventually, I hope, Ukraine. We believe that the project complex around Alexandroupoli – the floating Alexandroupoli regasification unit and the IGB pipeline connected to the TAP pipeline – can play a key role. Unlike Nord Stream II, for example, these projects diversify sources and routes and undermine Russia’s ability to use energy as a geopolitical tool.
The United States strongly supports this more dynamic Greek foreign policy, and through two US governments we have strengthened the 3 + 1 framework of cooperation with Greece, Israel, Cyprus and the United States that is a defining element of this new geography. We have also made good progress in including Greece in our Three Seas Initiative in recent years. We see this as another opportunity to strengthen the north-south connection from the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea.
The US Congress has also supported these efforts. The East Med Act of 2019 provided a congressional framework for U.S. support and engagement for the 3 + 1. And Senator Menendez, on his recent visit to Athens and Cyprus, made it clear that we will continue to build connectivity with our three close democratic partners in the region to address emerging challenges. Congress has also expanded the mandate of the US International Development Finance Corporation to fund and facilitate investments by American companies in Greece. This expanded mandate is specifically designed to provide a positive agenda in response to the checkbook diplomacy pursued by the PRC as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
Finally, the expansion and deepening of the US-Greek Agreement on Mutual Defense Cooperation has opened up additional sites and facilities in Greece for the US military presence. We expanded our presence in Souda Bay for the first time since the Cold War, and in northern Greece, the port of Alexandroupoli has become an extremely important logistics hub for the US Army in Europe and Africa, as well as for NATO. In the spring and summer, our armed forces used both rail and commercial liner services to project military power and resources into the regions of Eastern Europe and the Black Sea, and will continue to do so in the coming year with the arrival of our U.S. Army Combat Aviation Brigade and the Defender 22 exercise.
All of these developments underscore the importance of continuous collaboration between our like-minded liberal democracies. I am proud to say that the Biden-Harris administration is deeply committed to our transatlantic relationship and the democratic values that were born here in Athens. I know Greece and the Greek government share this strong transatlantic instinct. Because of the new collaborative relationships I have discussed, Greece is uniquely positioned as a NATO ally serving as a source of solutions across 270 degrees of the Eastern Mediterranean at a moment when the United States is more of our friends and allies in the region than are dependent ever before.
Senator Mendendez said on his recent visit to Athens: “We must work together because only together can we turn a time of great peril into a time of great promise.”
I look forward to today’s presentations and hope to hear some lively discussions during the Q&A phase. Thanks very much.