Ambassador Pyatt’s Farewell Interview with Fanis Papathanasiou, Anchor/Senior Diplomatic Editor ERT, Greek Public TV

April 29, 2022

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Mr. PapathanasiouMr. Ambassador, thank you very much for this interview for the Greek Public Television.  It’s an honor and privilege to have you here for this special farewell interview.  We are a few days away from the end of your five-year journey as the Ambassador to Greece.  How would you characterize today the state of the Greek-American relations and what Greece and the United States have accomplished?

Ambassador Pyatt:  First of all, thank you for the invitation, arranging this beautiful setting here at the Gennadius.  I will leave it to others to judge what we’ve accomplished over the course of this long odyssey.  I can’t put it much better than the Foreign Minister, in his comments yesterday, who talked about the all-time high that we’ve reached in terms of the bilateral relationship.  And I’m very proud of what the whole Embassy team, working with our counterparts in the Greek government, has accomplished in that regard.

One aspect of this that really stands out to me in a personal way: I was in Crete earlier this week for the start of the Tour of Hellas.  And I had the opportunity with Minister Avgenakis to talk to a lot of regular Greeks, citizens of Heraklion and people in the kafeneios and elsewhere.

What’s obvious to me is I think we’ve made great progress in terms of Greek public perceptions of the United States and the U.S.-Greece relationship.  And in our democracies that is so important.  It’s all well and good that we have excellent conversations between Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Dendias, or between Prime Minister Mitsotakis and President Biden, and all the other aspects of institutional and governmental cooperation.  But at the end of the day, in our two democracies what really matters is that people-to-people relationship.  And on that, we’ve made extraordinary progress.

Mr. PapathanasiouIt was a period, these five years, of crises, a difficult period.  First we had the long economic crisis, and then the crisis with COVID, Greek-Turkish conflicts, and now a difficult period because of the uncertainties of the Ukraine war.  What were the most difficult and challenging days during those five years?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I try to put the difficult days out of my mind.  If I look back on this five and a half years, the period of greatest concern to me as the American Ambassador in Greece was probably the summer of 2020.  I know former Secretary of State Pompeo spoke to this issue at the Delphi Forum in Washington, DC a month or two ago.  And he talked about the work that he did at the time with the Greek government but also with me, with my then counterpart David Satterfield in Ankara.  That was a period of very severe tensions.  Great concern in the United States about the provocative activities that Turkey had engaged in and the risks of an accident.  And we saw that of course in the collision between the Kemal Reis and the Hellenic frigate.  And that is an example of what was going on behind the scenes which was not visible to a lot of people.  Because most of the tension was happening at sea.  But certainly the United States took this very seriously.  We’ve worked closely with our other NATO allies in the region.  France is a very important partner in that regard.  And I’m personally very glad all the governments have worked very hard to get past that period of tension.

There are difficulties today as there have been at other stages over the past several years, but they’re nothing compared to what was happening in the summer of 2020 which was a very severe threat.

Mr. PapathanasiouYou are not concerned today?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I’m always concerned.  I worry about accidents.  And the United States has made clear our support for what Prime Minister Mitsotakis has done with his trip to Istanbul, the effort to build channels of communication, especially at this moment when we all need to be working together as NATO allies to support Ukraine, and to demonstrate unity of effort in the face of the outrageous invasion that Russia has unleashed against the people of Ukraine.  But with a clear understanding that this is a Russian agenda that goes far beyond just Ukraine and is really affecting all of our interests especially here in the eastern flank of NATO.

Mr. PapathanasiouYou spoke about Ukraine.  The security architecture has changed in the region lately, during the last years, and Greece and the United States have established an important strategic cooperation.  Do you see it deepening through the updated MDCA?  There is a discussion for further cooperation in equipment, et cetera.

Ambassador Pyatt:  We have made important progress both in terms of deepening the MDCA, building confidence between our forces.  I’m impressed every time I go to one of our exercises — whether it’s INIOCHOS in Andravida with our air forces working together, what our special forces have done together, what we do up at Petrochori.  We have built habits of cooperation which have strengthened the ability of our forces to work together and the confidence that they have in each other.

We have also put in place an institutional framework.  I’m extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished over the past few years in terms of the Strategic Dialogue, in terms of our military commission that works underneath the MDCA to implement practical cooperation.  The way in which we’ve added new facilities.  Thank goodness we have the cooperation that we do today at Alexandroupoli and Camp Giannouli.  It’s been extremely valuable in the context of the invasion of Ukraine.  But also what we do at Volos and Stefanovikio and Larisa.  All of these are manifestations of our shared interests and the commitment to deepening our military partnership.

We’ve done this also in terms of equipment as you allude to.  Look at the programs that we’ve had on my watch in recent years.  The transfer of the Kiowa helicopters, the M1117s.  There’s actually another large allotment of M1117s that are arriving in Thessaloniki this weekend, helping to enhance Greece’s readiness and ability to reinforce NATO’s southeastern flank.

What we’ve done in terms of major new procurements like the F-16 Viper upgrade, starting the conversation about F-35s.  The transfers that have helped to improve the ability of Greece to project power on behalf of NATO, including programs with the special forces.  The Mark V special forces boats that actually came to my hometown of San Diego.

All of these are manifestations of the U.S. commitment to invest in our defense relationship with Greece, the outstanding relationship which we have built between our armed forces, our military leadership, between General Floros and General Milley.  And of course that is going to be even more important as all of us in NATO deal with the consequences of the invasion of Ukraine that you talked about.  Inevitably Russia’s action is going to shift the center of gravity of European geopolitics towards the east.  Greece’s importance will only be enhanced in that regard.

Mr. PapathanasiouAnd May 16th we have an important visit of the Greek Prime Minister to Washington.  He will meet with President Biden, he will address the Congress.  The first Prime Minister to address the Congress.  How is the mood in Washington, DC about the visit of the Greek Prime Minister?  And what will be on the agenda?

Ambassador Pyatt:  The mood is extremely positive.  This is a President who is deeply committed to the relationship with Greece.  You remember, it was then Vice President Biden who swore me into this job.  And I know the passion and the personal commitment that he brings to the U.S.-Greece relationship, his admiration for the people of Greece, but also for what Greece represents in terms of a democracy, a country that shares our values, that shares our interests.  The White House invitation is a reflection of that.

If you also look at the way in which Speaker Pelosi has characterized the invitation to address a joint session of Congress, this is an extraordinary honor.  It’s the highest honor that our legislature can bestow upon a visiting foreign leader.  And the way in which she emphasizes both the quality of the U.S.-Greece relationship but also again the values.  It’s such an important part of the U.S.-Greece relationship, the admiration that we have for this precious gift of democracy.

I’ll always remember one of the first big events of my tenure, President Obama’s visit here, and his speech at the Niarchos Center.  He talked about how important Athenian democracy was as an inspiration to our founders and the debt that we all owe to Greece in that regard.

In terms of the issues, I had a good conversation with the Prime Minister just yesterday about his priorities.  I know that President Biden will be keen to hear from the Prime Minister about how we can further deepen and strengthen the bilateral relationship.

Obviously, energy issues loom very large at this point.  Greece has played a vital role in helping to reinforce energy security here in Europe through projects like Revithoussa and TAP and IGB and the FSRU.  It is helping to break the Gazprom monopoly in all of the countries of the Western Balkans.  And I’m very proud that on Tuesday I’ll be in Alexandroupoli with Prime Minister Mitsotakis but also with the Prime Ministers from Bulgaria and North Macedonia and Serbia, my counterparts from those embassies as well, to underline our support for the Alexandroupoli FSRU project which will be so important to the future.  It’s even more important after the invasion of Ukraine, after February 24th.  And now after the cutoff of Russian gas to Bulgaria and Poland.

I know that the President and the administration will be very keen to hear from Prime Minister Mitsotakis his vision on energy transition and climate change, where he has staked out a leading role on an issue that is so important to the long term security of our citizens.

I expect there will be an ample discussion of Ukraine.  I was in Washington a couple of weeks ago, and it was very obvious to me that the Prime Minister’s strong leadership on Ukraine, his determination to stand on the right side of history, his rapid military support to the Ukrainian people, the way in which Greek diplomacy has been so active in Mariupol, in Odessa, in cities literally under fire, cities on the front lines of Putin’s war.  The way in which the Prime Minister and his Cabinet have reaffirmed their commitment to ensure that the Ukrainian people prevail in this struggle of good versus evil.  All of that I’m sure will be a prominent part of the conversation.

And then I expect there will also be a lot that captures what we talked about at the beginning which is the people-to-people element of this relationship which is so special, so important.  The diaspora, the pride that Greek-Americans feel in the progress that Greece has made overcoming this terrible ten-year economic crisis.  And their support for the structures that we have built to deepen and enhance our cooperation.

Mr. PapathanasiouYou mentioned about the energy project.  And congratulations that you’ve been nominated by the White House to be the next Assistant Secretary for Energy.  You outlined already the energy projects in the region.  These are the priorities as far as the energy projects, talking as the Ambassador of the United States?

Ambassador Pyatt:  First of all, thank you for mentioning the nomination.  It’s a huge honor.  My name is currently before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and if I’m confirmed it will be the honor of a lifetime to lead that bureau and the global issues that it’s responsible for.

On the specifics here in Greece, there have really been two simultaneous lines of effort.  One is the work that we have done on energy diversification, diversification of sources and routes.  And Greece has been one of our most important partners in Europe in helping to build alternatives to Russian gas supply.  Greece was an early convert in that regard.  I wish that some of our other European allies had been as forward-looking as Greece was in advancing projects like the TAP pipeline, like the Revithoussa expansion, like the IGB, like the Alexandroupoli FSRU.  And of course there is the global partnership that we have with Greek shipping which plays such an important role in the global LNG marketplace.

So that’s an effort where we’ve made great progress, where we are now committed jointly to accelerating that progress.  As Europe is committed to phasing out Russian gas as quickly as possible.  As the United States is committed to supporting the urgent gas requirements of Europe as it gets away from Russian suppliers.

But simultaneously, accelerating our work on energy transition.  And here too, Greece has been ahead of the curve.  If you look at the dramatic progress that Greece has made in terms of the amount of electricity that is generated through wind and solar; the smoothing out of the regulatory hurdles to these projects to accelerate investment, including investment by American companies like 547 Energy.

And we just had a delegation here in Athens from the U.S. House of Representatives including the Chairman and the senior Republican from the House Energy Committee, Chairman Pallone.  The whole committee was really pleased to see the kind of leadership that Greece has charted out on the climate crisis, the Prime Minister’s commitment to the early phase-out of lignite, his commitment to accelerate deployment of new technologies including hydrogen fuel cell technologies, increased energy efficiency.

This is the joint effort that our future requires.  And, as I said, it’s a real bright spot of the U.S.-Greece relationship.  It’s why it’s one of the key pillars of our Strategic Dialogue.

Mr. PapathanasiouYou have spoken a lot about the 3+1 process with Greece, Israel, Cyprus and the United States.  And Under Secretary Nuland has discussed that during her visit.  Can you share with us the U.S. perspective on the importance of such a regional cooperation and Greece’s role in pushing for prosperity and stability in the region?

Ambassador Pyatt:  Sure.  First and foremost, I’m very proud of the structure that we’ve put in place with this 3+1 agenda.  I think it’s more important than ever precisely because of what’s happening in the region, because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, because of the Russian naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Russian base in Tartus and Syria.  All of this makes it even more urgent that we as democracies cooperate together.

Secretary Blinken has spoken repeatedly to his commitment in the 3+1 process.  And you heard from Under Secretary Nuland in her very successful visit the priority that she places on this.  I was glad to join her in a brief meeting with Foreign Minister Dendias and the Foreign Ministers from Cyprus and Israel.  She mentioned in her interview with Lena Argiri a few days ago that we expect there to be a ministerial level 3+1 —

Mr. PapathanasiouWhen?  Can you tell us when is it planned?

Ambassador Pyatt:  Very soon.  Very, very soon.  And that will be an opportunity for us to demonstrate the utility of this setting in order to develop even deeper cooperation.

We also have within that 3+1 basket a very robust energy agenda.  I was glad to host very recently one of the Deputy Assistant Secretaries from our Energy Bureau, a long-time colleague of mine, Laura Lochman, who was here in meetings with Minister Skrekas and myself and many other counterparts about the work that we’re doing under the energy baskets of the 3+1, including on renewable technologies and energy infrastructure, our support for interconnectors in the Eastern Mediterranean, like the EuroAsia Interconnector, the electricity connector from Egypt to Greece.  All of these are projects that we are strongly committed to.

I talked to the Prime Minister yesterday about our support for what he called the EastMed Gas Corridor, a very good way to think about it.  How can we work together so that the gas resources of the Eastern Mediterranean, in Israel and Egypt, Cyprus, are brought to market in Europe as quickly as possible because there’s much added urgency behind that effort now in light of the invasion of Ukraine and what Russia is doing.

So there is a lot for us to do together in the 3+1 context.  We’ve also worked on issues like energy and climate resilience.  How do all of our countries work together on challenges like wild fires, like ocean water and sea temperature changes which impact fisheries, which impact extreme weather events and coastal erosion?  How do we work together on counterterrorism?

There’s a very rich agenda there, and we want to work together with Greece, Israel and Cyprus to make this a meaningful forum in a region which, as I said, is much more strategically and geopolitically dynamic today than it was a few years ago.  Again, I’m hugely proud of the legacy that I leave behind in terms of this architecture of cooperation.

Mr. PapathanasiouOn the conflict in Ukraine.  Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia, said recently that he doesn’t think that this will develop into nuclear conflict, but still there is concern in the West.  What is your assessment about this war?  And how do you see Greece’s role in supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I’ll say a couple of things.  First of all, it’s much more than concern.  I think we’re horrified that here in the 21st century Russia is behaving in the way it has.  The violations of international law that Russia has engaged in, the gross human rights abuses, the rapes, the torture, the wanton destruction of civilian infrastructure including of course in Mariupol, a city with hundreds of years of connection to Greece and with such a proud Hellenic identity.

We all have to do everything that we possibly can to help the Ukrainians prevail.  I’m very confident based on what we’ve seen over the past two months and what I learned through three years as American Ambassador in Kyiv, this will be a strategic defeat for Vladimir Putin.  Ukrainian is going to win.  They’re going to win because of their courage, their resilience, their democracy.  It is not a coincidence that the demonstrations against Russian occupation in places like Kherson and Mykolaiv are being led by the mayors, the elected authorities that are a product of the Revolution of Dignity and the democratic reaffirmation that the Ukrainians achieved eight years ago.

We have a huge military challenge before us.  I read an interview of a Greek-American journalist who was traveling on the front lines this week, and he quoted a Ukrainian officer saying that this is like World War II but with modern weapons.  The only way that we are going to stop Putin is through military force, meeting the instrument that he has brought to bear.  That’s why the support that Greece has provided, the rockets, the RPGs, the ammunition, the AK-47s — these are indispensable contributions, and I know there is great appreciation in the United States but I think also among the Ukrainians for what Greece has done in that regard.  That’s why Defense Minister Panagiotopoulos and General Floros were included in the meeting at Ramstein Air Base a couple of days ago that General Milley and Secretary Austin pulled together.

We’re going to continue to work together to give the Ukrainians the tools that they need, and then we’re going to help the Ukrainians to rebuild their country after Putin is defeated.  Prime Minister Mitsotakis has been very clear on that as well.  His commitment is very eloquent to rebuilding the maternity hospital that the Russians so brutally destroyed in Mariupol.  I’m very impressed that Greece has sent its Consul General back to Odessa with a focus on humanitarian support and helping the Ukrainians, and especially the Ukrainians with Greek heritage across the southeastern coast of Ukraine, are able to rebuild and recover.

So we have to all work together on this.  Putin must be stopped.  I think Prime Minister Mitsotakis has been admirably clear on that point.

Mr. PapathanasiouFinally, on a personal note.  You will depart in a few days.

Ambassador Pyatt:  I will indeed.

Mr. PapathanasiouActually, I can say that you are the most active Ambassador traveling in every single place in the country.  What inspired you during all of these five years to move around, going out of the diplomatic [framework], traveling traveling back and forth.

Ambassador Pyatt:  It’s the best part of my job.  In this beautiful country with such wonderful people, the food, the landscapes.  If you’re a prisoner of Athens in my Embassy and the Foreign Ministry, you miss all of that.  My most treasured memories from Greece are my memories traveling around.  I said in Heraklion the other day, my cycling trips — the bike races in Patras, Sparti, here in Athens.  I have lifelong memories that will always stick with me.

I’ll always remember one bike ride in Mani, early on a very hot summer day, riding up into the mountains as the dew was still evaporating off of the plants.  You could smell the tuvunu.  It was almost like drinking the tea.  It was the smell that was in the air.  That kind of thing sticks with you forever.

And it has been an enormous honor to be part of this dynamic, exciting period of U.S.-Greece relations, but it has also been a huge personal pleasure to get to know this country, to get to know its people, the philotimo, the generosity that Mary, my wife, and I have enjoyed.  But also all of the memories — the sunsets, the sunrises, the look of the sea during the meltemi in August, the blue and white of the waves, and the whitecaps blowing off the sea in Cyclades during the meltemi.

Mr. PapathanasiouWhat are you going to miss the most?  Do you have a favorite island?

Ambassador Pyatt:  There is no good answer to the question, what’s your favorite island or your favorite village, because everybody in Greece has very strong views on this.

I will say, if there’s one island that will stick with me as a memory, it is Syros, both because of the work that we’ve done as the U.S. government to help catalyze the renaissance of the shipyard there, and through that the rebirth of Greek shipbuilding.  We think that’s just the beginning.  We hope very much there will be new prospects with Skaramangas, and Elefsina, and the strategic role that Greek shipbuilding can play, akin to the strategic role that Greek shipping plays internationally.

Syros is also an undiscovered island in terms of the back side of the island, the beaches of Delfini, of Barbarosa, of Grammatiko.  These are one of my secrets that I will carry with me and I hope very much to come back at some point in the future.

Mr. PapathanasiouI understand that a lot of people here in the political system, they say that they have a friend now in Washington.  And I guess you’re going to be one of the main contacts for the political system in DC in the next year after you’re nominated in your new position.

Thank you very much for this special privilege interview.  For now, goodbye, and see you soon.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Thank you, Fanis.  And n’aste kala to all of my Greek friends.