Old Stock Exchange Building, Athens, Greece
March 29, 2022
Question: We are discussing the U.S. perspective on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the importance of the democratic alliance at a time of global upheaval as the one we are currently facing. This year’s forum bears the title: An Ever Changing World. So I would like to ask you to share with us your estimation of this new world that is rising in these times that we are going through.
Ambassador Pyatt: Thank you, and thanks for having me. This is an incredibly important topic at a really important time. I’m particularly proud of the cooperation that we have had with the government of the Hellenic Republic as Greece has stood on the right side of history, as Prime Minister Mitsotakis put it.
In answer to your question, I can’t do any better than President Biden’s really historic speech in Warsaw on Saturday night where he talked about the moment that we have arrived at. This tremendous struggle which is going on between democracy and authoritarianism, between liberty and denial, and between the values that were founded right here in Athens, a few hundred meters from where we’re sitting today, that have inspired so many millions of people around the world including the 40 million brave Ukrainians who we see fighting today to have the same fundamental European rights — freedom of speech, rule of law, judicial and electoral accountability, that we all take for granted.
Question: Joe Biden said last week that, now is the time for change. There is going to be a new world order out there, and we must be its leaders. We have to unite the rest of the free world around it. Is this the message he brought to Europe?
Ambassador Pyatt: That’s right. What you saw the President doing, both in Brussels and with these three summits, with the G7, with our NATO allies, with the European Union, and then in speaking to the people of the world from Warsaw, was rallying the free world in defense of these values that we hold in common, at a moment when they are under threat, in a way that we have not seen for several generations. The effort to reaffirm our commitment to democracy and perfecting our democracies at home, but also to support those who are struggling for the same rights.
Question: If this is the message that President Biden brought to Europe, I wonder whether it will be possible to have a common leadership of this new world, the free world, as they say, since European Union, as we all know, is still not a political union.
Ambassador Pyatt: I think that is one of our greatest strengths, is our networks of alliance and cooperation. We have demonstrated that over and over again as NATO, as the transatlantic community, as the Euro-Atlantic community.
We have to figure out how we mobilize our shared interests and how we signal unanimity of effort as we have done for the past month since the 24th of February and Putin’s brutal invasion, and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. We have signaled that we are collectively going to impose a cost through our economic sanctions, through the freezing of assets, through our efforts to provide security assistance to the brave Ukrainians who are fighting.
Even as we sit here on a beautiful spring day in Athens, you have Ukrainians who are fighting and dying in Kherson and Mariupol, in Kyiv, in Kharkiv, to have the same rights that we all take for granted, and to have a European future.
Question: With your experience, because as I remember, you were the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine during the Revolution [of Dignity]. You obviously know the country. What was the model of democracy after the overthrow of the pro-Russian president?
Ambassador Pyatt: What I saw in 2013 during what the Ukrainians called the Revolution of Dignity was an effort by everyday people — doctors and farmers and auto mechanics and teachers and parents and grandparents — to reclaim their democracy from a government which was perceived as corrupt and corrupted. It was a cry for the values that we all hold in common which I talked about earlier.
It is offensive to me that Vladimir Putin stands up and says that he is going to pursue “de–nazification” in a country whose President is himself Jewish, whose family was victimized during the Holocaust. This was a movement of regular people. And what was so impressive to me was that these regular people were willing to put everything on the line to build this better future for themselves.
And I will always remember, I think it was on a Sunday, so probably around the 23rd of February 2014 after President Yanukovych fled and was declared by his Parliament to having vacated his office. I traveled to the Parliament to meet with the Speaker of the Parliament, Mr. Turchynov. And I will always remember driving up the road. The smell of smoke was still in the air from the revolution. It was a city that had been traumatized by the sniper attacks on the Maidan.
But what I will remember is the thousands of regular people, parents with their children in strollers, grandparents holding flowers, people coming to place candles, all of whom were trying to demonstrate their commitment to building a different European future.
And a couple of months later I had the extraordinary experience of being an election observer and going to polling places. And I’ll always remember going to one of the polling places in one of the suburbs that Russia has been shelling over the past few weeks, and meeting with a young family — a mother and father and their daughter who must have been probably six or seven years old. I asked them why were they bringing their daughter with them to come to the polling place? And it was so powerful when they said, because we want to show her democracy. We want to show her what we have earned and what we’re going to hold onto.
That’s what Ukrainians have been doing over the past eight years since the Revolution of Dignity, and that is what Vladimir Putin is so threatened by. He is threatened by the idea of 40 million people, Russian speakers, who are trying to build a modern European democracy which stands in such stark contrast to the authoritarian regime that he has built and perfected over the past decades.
Question: Thank you very much for sharing that. I believe that you were not taken by surprise by the fierce resistance of the Ukrainians. For some when the invasion started said it would only be a matter of days.
Ambassador Pyatt: No, I wasn’t surprised at all because I saw the courage that the Ukrainians demonstrated in 2014 when they rallied to defend their democracy. I saw the courage that a much less well-equipped Ukrainian armed forces demonstrated when they mobilized in the spring and summer of 2014 to stop the Russian invasion of Donetsk and Luhansk. And most importantly, I saw the incredible courage of the citizens of Mariupol, including 100,000 citizens of Greek origin, who were so proud when I visited with them that their city, which had been occupied by the Russian army and where the same corrupted political false regime was imposed, where they had demonstrated the capacity to drive the invader away. So it doesn’t surprise me at all.
I think that is exactly why it’s so important that Greece and all of us in our transatlantic community have responded as emphatically as we have. Because this is not just about Ukraine. As important as that country is in the heart of Europe, it’s really about two competing visions for the future of the international system. It’s about the rules-based order that has provided great peace and prosperity throughout Europe largely since 1945, and whether we are now going to allow that regime to be replaced by the law of the jungle.
Question: I want ask you straight, is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?
Ambassador Pyatt: So again, I look to what President Biden has said. He’s been very clear that the behaviors that Putin has engaged in are those of a war criminal. The State Department has reached a judgment that war crimes have been committed. It is now the responsibility of international institutions, of international courts, to formally find that responsibility. But the United States is going to work with all of our allies to make sure that accountability is applied and that those crimes are investigated.
And again, there is no more dramatic example of that than what we’ve seen in Mariupol over the past three weeks. A city that has been leveled by Russian shelling, by the targeting of civilian institutions, the bombing of a maternity hospital. The bombing of a theater with hundreds of women and children, with the word “діти” “Children,” written out big enough to see from the sky and still Russia has proceeded.
These are not accidents. This is a deliberate strategy and it must be highlighted, it must be called out, and we need to hold those who have authored these acts accountable for their terrible, terrible crimes.
Question: Should he be taken to an international tribunal?
Ambassador Pyatt: We certainly believe that there needs to be a full international legal process to document and hold accountable those who are responsible for these terrible crimes.
Question: We have an ongoing talks between the two sides. A few minutes ago we found out that there have been some small steps that the Russian side says they’re not focused on Kyiv anymore and the Ukrainian side is talking about neutrality. Are you optimistic about this process?
Ambassador Pyatt: I’m realistic, because I’ve watched this war drag on now for eight years. The most important thing that I have learned is never count out the Ukrainian people, and we have to listen to them.
The shape of any final peace is going to be determined not in Brussels or Washington or Paris or Istanbul. It’s going to be determined by the people of Ukraine through the process that has begun.
We have full confidence that President Zelensky and his team are committed to the path of peace. There is great reason for skepticism about Russia’s intentions. Based on what President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov and the rest of the Russian government said and did up until the 24th of February, when they went around the world, including with the government of Greece, promising that they were not going to invade anything, even though we knew from our intelligence that there were more than 100,000 troops that had been mobilized and that the order had already been set in motion to commit this terrible invasion.
Question: The United States have insisted in making public this information, and many of us were surprised because, Ambassador, it’s not something that happens every day.
Ambassador Pyatt: The administration was as forward leaning as it was precisely because we knew that we could be successful in our diplomacy only if we built a strong international coalition, if we worked with our European allies, if we worked with NATO, and we understood that we had to put the facts on the table. So that’s why this extensive process of engagement took place, including here in Athens. My own work with Foreign Minister Dendias, the phone calls from Washington, the messages which we shared with the Prime Minister’s office and with the Minister of Defense. All of which were intended to help Greece, like all of our European allies, have a clear picture of exactly the playbook that Russia was unfolding.
And sadly, I remember talking to the Foreign Ministry, to the Prime Minister’s office, predicting that the most infamous crimes of this invasion would happen in Mariupol because I had been there, because I saw what happened in 2104, and that’s exactly what has come to pass.
Question: After this, do you think that Ukraine will have a place in the EU?
Ambassador Pyatt: The Ukrainians themselves have made clear that they see their future in Europe.
Remember the Revolution of Dignity. It was not called the NATO Maidan, it was called the Euro Maidan. The flags that were out there through 11 weeks were the flags of the European Union. And I can remember walking down on the Maidan some days, and I would ask people, why are you doing this? What do you want? And invariably I would get some version of we want to live in a normal country.
Nobody talked about Brussels regulations. Nobody talked about trade rules. What they talked about was we want to build a better future for our children. We want our leadership to be accountable at the ballot box. We want to have freedom of speech. We want to have the prospect of a more optimistic future.
And that always had a particularly powerful impact on my European colleagues because, let’s face it, Brussels is not always that popular. Greece, you’ve lived through this. You understand the tyranny of the Troika. But for Ukrainians who have lived through so much trauma in their history, this was the blood lands, it was the region that saw some of the worst violence and bloodletting of the Second World War.
Europe is an incredibly powerful and attractive example of the kind of society that they want to build. This is not easy. We know that in America. Our democracy is not perfect. You know that here in Greece. But it’s very clear the direction in which they wish to move and what President Biden was saying in his speech in Warsaw is that we all need to work together. We as the free world should work together to applaud, welcome and reinforce that sentiment, because there are other forces out in the world that have a very different vision for how societies should be organized.
And again, if anyone should understand that it’s Greeks because you invented democracy. You invented these values right here. And for me, it has been incredibly powerful to serve as Ambassador over almost nine years now in these two countries. One country which has a very strongly institutionalized democracy and where you can have the humbling experience of walking through the Agora and standing where Socrates stood and thinking about how these values were first put into practice.
Question: You will miss Greece Ambassador?
Ambassador Pyatt: Of course I will. And then at the same time, to walk on this hallowed ground in the Maidan where people, as I said, risked everything they had.
One thing that I struggle sometimes to capture. If you go to a football match. My house is right around the corner from Panathinaikos Stadium, so before COVID on Sundays you could hear this rarh, rarh, the crowds, or Olympiakos down here in Piraeus. Everybody knows what it’s like to be in a huge crowd like that.
Imagine being in the same kind of crowd where people are cheering not for one football team or another but for a political vision, a vision of democracy, a vision of rule of law. That’s incredibly powerful.
Question: We have different societies, you’ve mentioned it, and something that has been troubling for analysts over the last few weeks is whether the international harsh sanctions imposed on Russia could actually push Russia to China’s arms and what this would mean for the world.
Ambassador Pyatt: Our goal is not to divide the world up into black and white or different blocks. Our goal is to reinforce a community of values and a rules-based international order. That’s why it’s so important that Asian allies like Japan, like Australia, continue to signal their strong support also for the measures that we have taken against Russia. It’s why we continue working on India, a big democracy of more than a billion people. But the objective of sanctions is not punishment. The objective of sanctions is to change behavior.
Our hope is to see Russia reverse its invasion, to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors. This is not about the people of Russia.
Everybody has seen this video that Arnold Schwarzenegger did, the former Governor of my home state of California. And he talks with such passion about the people of Russia and his own experience as a sportsman competing and engaging with Russian citizens.
This is not about the people of Russia. It’s about Vladimir Putin and the model of government that he has imposed on his society and how we ensure that he is not able to now export that model through brute force to neighboring countries who have made a very different choice.
Question: Let me ask a personal question. Do you feel that you have succeeded in your goals here in Greece?
Ambassador Pyatt: I’ll leave that to the historians. One thing I have learned as an American Ambassador over nine years now is you have to be modest about how much you can change things. History is composed of huge forces, and all of us, we put our little finger down from time to time.
I have tried very hard to build the relationship between Greece and the United States because I see it of fundamental importance to America’s interests in Europe, in the Eastern Mediterranean, in the Balkans, the Black Sea and beyond.
I hope that we have built a framework for closer cooperation between our two countries, and I hope especially that I’ve been able to reach out and build confidence among Greek citizens because ultimately in both of our democracies, the quality of our relationship depends less on what Prime Minister Mitsotakis or President Biden think and do, it’s what the citizens believe.
I’ve benefited in this job from the fact that Greece has a wonderful brand, if you will, in the United States. It is a country which has a very successful diaspora in the United States. But it’s also a country which has gone through great difficulties over the past decade including a very severe economic crisis. And I hope that I have been successful and will be remembered as having been successful in helping to support the process of recovery through the work that we’ve done with Pfizer, with Amazon, with Microsoft, getting the investment track going, deepening and building confidence in our security relationship, recognizing that Greece lives in a rough neighbourhood.
For better or worse, you are not Luxembourg. You have complicated neighbors. And it is in our interest that Greece is safe and secure because the more that you are safe and secure, the more effective and the more powerful Greece can be in reinforcing this community of values that we’ve spent the past 15 minutes talking about.
Question: One more question. Is the EastMed project still alive?
Ambassador Pyatt: The United States remains strongly committed to the vision of connecting the energy resources of the Eastern Mediterranean to markets in Europe. You heard from President Biden in his meeting with President von der Leyen on Friday the very strong commitment to helping facilitate Europe’s overdue and very welcome effort to reduce its vulnerability to Russian energy manipulation, to reduce its reliance on Russian gas including through the delivery to Europe of additional American LNG.
We are therefore interested also in the question of how most quickly and efficiently to bring the gas resources of the Eastern Mediterranean in Israel, perhaps off of Cyprus, to European markets. The way to do that is not going to be through a pipeline that’s going to require a decade or more to bring to fruition, but there’s a lot of good work being done including by energy companies in Egypt, in Israel, in the United States, looking at how to very quickly bring some of that gas to European markets.
And I’m very excited about the work that we have done, the United States, with Greece, including with Minister Skrekas, on projects like the Alexandroupolis floating regassification unit and the expansion of the Revithoussa Terminal which offer the prospect of Greece developing its role as a hub for bringing those gas resources to countries in Europe which are much more vulnerable than you are to the manipulation of Russian energy supplies.
We’re also going to continue to support projects like the Euro-Africa Electricity Interconnector to bring clean energy from solar and wind from Africa, from the Middle East to European markets.
So there’s going to be a lot that will continue to be done in this area. I don’t anticipate that involving a very expensive, very deep pipeline that would take many, many years to bring to fruition.
Question: Ambassador in today’s discussion we have drawn several times a line between democracy and authoritarian regimes. And I was wondering whether you consider Greece to be a bastion of the democratic world against the world of authoritarian regimes, and if so, I’m wondering whether we can count on the West’s support and especially on the United States.
Ambassador Pyatt: I’ll say three things. First of all, you invented it. And we all owe Greece a great debt for what was accomplished here 2,500 years ago.
Second, the resilience of Greece’s democracy, including through a very severe economic crisis, is something not to be taken for granted. If you look at what’s happened elsewhere in Europe, even in my own country in terms of attacks on democracy, what happened on January 6th of 2021 in the United States, being able to preserve our democratic institutions is vitally important.
And then Greece has played a particularly important role in American strategy because of the work that you have done in your immediate neighborhood including with the countries of the Western Balkans and helping them to continue on the path of reform and democratic development as part of a larger European package.
As we look to the future of Ukraine, and there will be a future of a sovereign Ukraine which is going to continue to move towards the European Union. In fact, I expect it will move even faster because the Ukrainian people are going to demand it. They’re going to say we were too slow on reforms, we have to move even faster now because that’s how we secure our children’s future. And things like Prime Minister Mitsotakis’s pledge to help with the reconstruction of the maternity hospital in Mariupol reflect the contributions and the unique role that Greece can play.
So yes, Greece is part of Europe’s frontier. Greece is a bastion of democracy. It is a key part of the American strategy to foster stability and economic prosperity in this region of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans and the Black Sea, North Africa, everything south of Crete. Greece is right in the middle of that effort and precisely because you are not Luxembourg. You are at a region which crosses geopolitical boundaries. You have strong relations with Egypt, with Israel, with the Arab countries of the Gulf. All of that allows you to play a bridging role which contributes to this larger effort to build a community of democracies, a community of rule of law, which is important for American strategy, and also something that Prime Minister Mitsotakis and Foreign Minister Dendias, to their great credit, have enunciated as being a priority for Greece, as part of your effort to develop a more strategic and ambitious foreign policy.
Question: A final question on Ukraine, we’ve spoken earlier about the ongoing peace talks or talks process in Istanbul, and I asked if you’re an optimist, and you responded you are a realist as diplomats usually are.
I’m wondering whether you think that if we have a deal the Russian side will respect it in the long term. In other words, if it’s possible in the near future we have a repetition of what is happening in Ukraine or somewhere else.
Ambassador Pyatt: I’ll come back to President Biden’s speech in Warsaw. He made clear that the world after February 24th is going to be different from the world before, and we are all going to have to work together as democracies, as NATO member states, to reinforce and defend the community of values that our countries represent.
I saw in 2015 an effort to stop the terrible violence that was unfolding in Eastern Ukraine at that time. We all pray that the violence again stops, because this is much more expansive than what we saw in 2014-2015. But we are going to have to remain vigilant. Ukraine is going to have to be reconstructed. And, as I said, the Ukrainians themselves are going to make some very important decisions about their future.
One thing that’s very clear is that Ukrainians have chosen a future which lies not in some authoritarian reconstruction of the Soviet Union that Vladimir Putin seems to have in mind, but rather in being part of a larger European community. I know from the conversations I had — I vividly remember on my last visit to Crimea, I was in Yalta, in September of 2013. And there was a conference a little bit like this one hosted by Victor Pinchuk, one of the oligarchs you heard talked about earlier. And there were a number of American speakers at that event including Hillary Clinton.
But what I will always remember more than anything is the exchange that took place between one of the Kremlin idealogues, a guy named Glazyev, and Petro Poroshenko, who at that point was just another industrialist. He owned a chocolate company. And Glazyev was very clear in warning the Ukrainians that if they continue to move towards the association agreement with Europe, Russia was going to hurt them.
Nobody imagined at the time that the pain that the Kremlin was prepared to inflict was as dramatic as what we’ve seen over the past four weeks. But it was also significant to me that when Petro Poroshenko was elected president in 2015, one of his first actions, and one of the government ofPrime Minister Yatsenyuk’s first actions was to sign the EU Association Agreement.
It wasn’t about NATO. Again, I come back, it was not the NATO Maidan. It was the Euro Maidan. And it’s interesting also as you look at this huge movement of refugees that’s taking place across Europe today, a larger shift of population than has happened at any time since the Second World War, it’s very clear, and I say this based on my own conversations with Ukrainian friends who’ve landed up in Bratislava or Poland or someplace else, they all say the same thing. We are not refugees. We are here with our children seeking shelter temporarily until we defeat Vladimir Putin and we go home.
And the home that those Ukrainians go back to is going to be much more emphatically European than the one that they left. And I think this is an issue that Europeans yourselves have to decide. But for my part, as somebody who has lived and worked in this part of the world for the past nine years, it’s incredibly powerful to have 45 million people who believe so passionately in the European Project and are prepared to sacrifice so much, putting everything they have on the line.
As Europe thinks about its geopolitical future, the future of the European Project, its economic future which is something all of us in the United States and Europe have to grapple with. We enjoy a very high standard of living and the world is more connected and we have the challenges of labor and mobility and technology. Having Europe as part of that community can be a very powerful thing. It also, as I said, I believe it will remain a tremendous threat to Vladimir Putin which is why the problem at the root of this is not going to go away.
Question: Ambassador, thank you.
Ambassador Pyatt: Thank you for having me. As you can tell, I feel very strongly about these issues. I appreciate the conversation. And I look forward to hearing how it continues to unfold including here in Greece.
I will just finish by underlining the enormous respect that President Biden and the U.S. government have for the role that Greece has played in this crisis. The very clear message of the Prime Minister, that Greece will stand on the right side of history; the early decision by the Prime Minister to provide humanitarian and security assistance to the Ukrainians; and the way in which Greek diplomats and the Greek government has spoken out so clearly on the atrocities that are being inflicted on Mariupol, a city with hundreds of years of Hellenistic identity that Putin appears bent on wiping off the face of the map.