“I have been a stalwart supporter of the deep American bonds with Greece, Cyprus, Israel and others in the region,” US Senator Robert Menendez reiterated in the 15th Manuel Chrysoloras keynote speech on security cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean in Athens on Monday.
“These bonds are rooted in rich and vibrant diasporas and in a shared abiding faith in democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” said Menendez, a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at the premises of the European Public Law Organization (EPLO) in Plaka.
The American senator was in Athens as part of a regional tour promoting the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019, bipartisan legislation introduced by Menendez and Senator Marco Rubio earlier this month that would allow the US to fully support the trilateral partnership of Greece, Cyprus and Israel through energy and defense cooperation initiatives – including by lifting the embargo on arms transfers to the Republic of Cyprus.
“The opportunities to deepen security ties that bring peace, security and prosperity have never been more promising,” he said.
Menendez also praised the work of US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt, saying he is “glad that [Pyatt] and the US Embassy team here in Athens are working every day to strengthen this critically important bond between our countries.”
Speaking of the challenges facing the Eastern Mediterranean, Menendez pointed to Turkey as the “root” of “some of the most deep-seated problems in the region,” saying that the “2016 coup attempt and its aftermath have debilitated the democratic process.”
He stressed concerns about warming relations between Ankara and Moscow, saying it is “disturbing on many levels,” as the Kremlin “is an adversary of NATO and has made its intentions crystal-clear on the world’s stage.”
“This is not a reliable partner. And yet Turkey insists on treating it as such,” Menendez said, pointing to “Turkey’s unfathomable intention” to purchase Russia’s S-400 missile system, which, he added, “is dangerous in the context of NATO and reckless in the context of its own long-term security.”
Washington has threatened Turkey with sanctions if it takes the S-400 for delivery under a US law that penalizes significant transactions with the Russian defense sector. “The law is clear and unambiguous. These sanctions could have devastating consequences for Turkey’s economy and defense sector,” Menendez warned.
Turkey will also lose access to the F-35 fighter jet, Menendez added. “The sooner that President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan comes to this realization, the better off we will all be. This view is held by the administration and by a broad bipartisan group in the Senate and House. Rarely do we find such consensus on any issue,” he said.
Menendez went on to say that Turkish interference in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone is “unacceptable,” and continued violations of Greek airspace over the Aegean are “dangerous, reckless and could result in a miscalculation that plunges the region into conflict.”
The region has also “increasingly become a platform and crossroads for Russian and Chinese influence. As we all have come to realize, China plays four-dimensional chess around the world, militarily, economically, diplomatically and culturally,” Menendez said.
“Globally, China’s brand of international diplomacy is best described as manipulative investment... I have similar concerns about Chinese investments in infrastructure, like the port of Piraeus here in Athens. What may seem like regular economic transactions can have serious security implications. While these ports may be commercially desirable, can they be relied upon at times of national emergency when the movement of goods or military vessels become critical? ...As I understand it, Greece engaged in the Piraeus deal when in the depths of its economic crisis. Had the international community woken up to the potential implications of Chinese investments at the time, perhaps something could have been done to support Greek efforts to find alternative investors,” Menendez said.
On the issue of Russia, Menendez warned that the pressure from Moscow on governments across the Eastern Med is “real and sustained.” “I believe Moscow will continue to push until it meets genuine resistance. Our sanctions thus far have failed to change Kremlin behavior because they have not succeeded in changing the Kremlin’s calculus,” he added.
The Eastern Mediterranean Security and Partnership Act, Menendez said, “is a good place to start” in addressing these and other challenges, as it “sends a clear message from the Senate to the region and the world.” He also described the recent US-Greece Strategic Dialogue as an “important step forward.” “I am proud to say that under Ambassador Pyatt’s leadership, our defense relationship with Greece is the strongest it’s ever been.”
However, the US senator added, building on this momentum “starts with investment.” The bill, he said, “would authorize foreign military financing assistance for Greece to support efforts to modernize its forces and reach its 20 percent commitment for new procurement. The bill would also authorize funds for military training and exchange programs between our countries.”
He also spoke of the “transformational impact” on the region of recent energy finds, saying they “could be an important way to bind the countries of the region together.” His bill, he added, paves the way for a United States-Eastern Mediterranean energy center to facilitate energy cooperation between the US, Israel, Greece and Cyprus. “We need to encourage the private sector to continue to engage in the region,” Menendez said, adding that the US will do what it can to help facilitate and support their efforts.
On the issue of Cyprus, Menendez expressed confidence that “if left to their own devices and without undue influence from Ankara... an agreement could be reached. The people of Cyprus, on both sides of the green line, should be allowed that right to determine their own future.”
He praised the Cyprus government for “charging ahead towards a new future,” for “moving forward with potentially historic efforts to explore for energy” and for “taking a bold stand in support of its sovereignty.”
“The momentum in US-Cypriot relations is truly changing... but now we must put meat on the bones,” Menendez said. “That is why I am leading the effort in the United States Senate to finally lift the arms embargo on Cyprus. It is overdue. It was the wrong policy under Democratic administrations, it was the wrong policy under Republican administrations and it must come to an end. Any lifting of the arms embargo is not about weapons alone. It is an indication of political support. It is about treating an EU country with the respect it deserves. And it is an acknowledgment of the sovereign right that it has to defend itself.”