MR BROWN: Hey, good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining us for today’s on-the-record briefing with Assistant Secretary Clarke Cooper from our Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. We’d like to welcome him back from – he just recently returned from travel to Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, and Bulgaria that he went on October 14th through the 17th, and he’ll be giving you his impressions from that travel and answer other questions on his area of expertise. He’ll start with opening remarks and then take time for your questions. As always, the contents of the briefing are embargoed until the call ends, and for the sake of efficiency, if you’d like to go ahead and get in the queue to ask a question, just dial 1 and then 0. And with that, I’ll turn it over to our briefer. Please, go ahead.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Cale, thank you, and welcome back yourself. Good for us to all be back CONUS here at the department. As he mentioned, I just recently returned from my first overseas trip since the onset of the pandemic and those restrictions, making that work, following those protocols. And so I’ll offer a really quick tour d’horizon on my travels and conversations with our security partners Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, and Bulgaria.
First I’ll start in Athens. That was 14 through 17. I did consultations with a number of senior civilian and military officials, including the Minister of Defense Panagiotopoulos and Minister of Foreign Affairs Dendias. And we worked, of course, furthering on our bilateral and alliance efforts to promote peace and stability in the region and to also discuss defense trade opportunities.
While I was there, I took time to visit our actual station there, the U.S. Naval Support Activity at Souda Bay. It’s a place I’m familiar with from previous work before coming back to the Department of State. Also made time to go to the NATO missile firing installation or NAMFI. This is where we have NATO allies like Germany and the Netherlands where they test their air defense and air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles since the late 1960s. And then on to the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operations Training Center. This is where NATO allies as well as non-NATO partners train to execute surface and sub-surface aerial surveillance and special operations activities in support of maritime interdiction.
Then following on, October 18 to 19, I was in Nicosia over in the Republic of Cyprus, and this is where we had very productive conversations with the ministries – not only of foreign affairs; also of defense – and this is where we get into some news space. We discussed plans to provide educational opportunities to the Republic of Cyprus’s military personnel. This is through our IMET program, or the International Military Education and Training program, and then of course we went into the recently announced expanded access to non-lethal U.S.-origin defense articles and services controlled under the ITAR, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.
While I was in Cyprus, we made significant progress on anti-money laundering reforms. Since the 2013 financial crisis, there’s been significant work in that space. However, I did specifically note that Cyprus has not yet taken the steps necessary to deny port access to Russian naval vessels. These and other steps are certainly necessary, but they’re also part of the Eastern Mediterranean strategy as well as the Energy Partnership Act of 2019. We certainly want the Republic of Cyprus to pursue in this direction. This would also enable us to further continued access to ITAR-controlled defense articles.
And then lastly, before I left Cyprus, I stopped at the Zenon Center. This is a joint rescue coordination center, and it has a 24/7 capability not only for Cyprus but also for a regional space for EU authorities to be able to help manage some of the migration flows originating from the Middle East and North Africa. This also assists in countering trafficking of third-country nationals abroad, and it certainly also has a – helps support search and rescue.
And then finally, the last stop – this was in Bulgaria, October 20th through 23rd. This was where I met with Prime Minister Borissov; also met with the foreign minister and other ministry officials to discuss our enhancements in the security cooperation space and defense trade relationship. You may recall in 2019 Prime Minister Borissov and President Trump laid out a strategic framework in that space. My visit there was on pieces of implementation, also looking ahead. I took time to visit Graf Ignatievo and Bezmer Air Bases as well as the Novo Selo Training Area. This is where U.S. forces have been conducting rotational training as far back as 2007.
Military modernization is certainly a priority for Bulgaria, and this is something that we’ve encouraged in the bilateral and alliance space. The most tangible evidence of that is the historic procurement of the eight block – 16 – Block 70 F-16s in 2019. And during my visit just a few weeks ago, we were able to announce – and of course, subject to congressional approval – the provision of two decommissioned F-16s to further assist in the training of the Bulgarian Air Force. This is through the Excess Defense Articles program, or the EDA program.
While I was there, I took time to actually meet with the crews of the six U.S. F-16s that participated in the recent multinational Thracian Viper 2020 exercise. And those of you who are wondering what Thracian is, I could tell you that it actually has references back to the Iliad. So it’s beyond ancient Greek, and they actually were allies of the Trojans. We could talk about that later if you want. But that exercise, and then our Air Force element remaining to do air policing, certainly provided that side-by-side assurance, but also tangible evidence of our commitment in that space.
This is just one of more than 170 joint military engagements we conducted since the start of 2019 alone. And the training ties between the – both militaries is longstanding and robust, and we could say that goes back 20 years. We could log that back to 2000, with nearly about 4,000 Bulgarian military personnel who participated in our – in U.S. military training and education programs. And then more recently since 2015, the United States has invested more than $40 million to upgrade Bulgarian military facilities. And this is through the European defense initiative, and also through the grants of the European Recapitalization Incentive Program. This is to further not only promote modernization and integration into operability with the United States and NATO, but this is also something that we would see as a long-term regional framework for their self-defense, but also their contribution to the alliance.
And then finally, back home here at the United States, this is not part of my recent travel, but did want to give you a quick update on how we are and where we are with our security partnership with the United Arab Emirates. That, of course, continues to deepen, and this is certainly a result of the Abraham Accords, the transformative Abraham Accords. I cannot preview any particular decisions in advance of our formal notification to Congress; however, I can confirm some of what you are hearing in open source conversations. We are indeed working with our counterparts in Abu Dhabi to meet their sovereign security requirements and assess their requests for additional materiel. Of course, we are doing this while still preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge.
As I said, the Abraham Accords have been transformative – of course, not just for UAE; they have been transformative for Israel, Bahrain, and of course, now Sudan. We do foresee further opportunities for the normalization of security relationships and coordination across the region. Israel does not object to these efforts, which are required to defend and deter increasing dangers from Iran. So one could look at this as another type of shared challenge, as well as a shared burden that they all can relate to. Iran seeks to impede the peaceful progress of normalization by any means, and their threats have put the UAE at a greater risk. Thus it’s only natural that we would carefully consider and expedite where practical certain carefully selected advanced capabilities to deter potential threats, including the nearly 4,000 U.S. service members who are currently based in the UAE.
So at this time I’m happy to open up the floor for further questions and conversation.
MR BROWN: For our first question, can you open the line of Matt Lee?
QUESTION: Thanks a lot, Assistant Secretary. Appreciate this. You’ve always been honest and more – and forthright with us, so I hope that you’ll take this question in the spirit that it’s intended, which is that you talk a lot about future things, looking ahead with Bulgaria, looking ahead with Cyprus and all that kind of thing. How much – was there any – did you hear – have you heard any concerns expressed about the election, what happens if the Trump administration is no more after January, and were you – have you been able to offer them any assurances that even with a change of administration, if there is one, that what you have set in motion thus far will continue? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Yeah, I’ll start with strategies, and I’ll start with policies. So we talked about the Eastern Mediterranean strategy. Also I think I may have mentioned Black Sea, and if I didn’t, I apologize. Those strategies are tied directly to statutory requirements that, of course, have been built not only by the national security enterprise, but of course with, through, and in consultation with Congress. I note that because if we look at resources not just from an appropriations standpoint, but we look at efforts to bolster capabilities of partners, of allies like Bulgaria, allies like Greece, and growing partnerships, as with Cyprus, those are very much a part of broader long-term strategies. So from that perspective, if you’re sitting in a capital like Athens or Sofia or Nicosia, they see it – they too see it as broad and long term.
I would also offer that when we’re talking about particular materiel procurements, modernization for any of these states, again, as part of longer broad-term plans, if they’re a NATO allied state, they are certainly also looking at things like their commitments to the alliance; for example, being able to meet the 2014 Wales agreement as far as their GDP commitment.
But these are, again, propositions that are mapped out, not dissimilar to what we do here in the United States as we’re looking from a broad five, ten years out. It would be irresponsible of any defense ministry or national security enterprise to only look a week out or a month out or a year out. I mean, these are definitely long-term propositions and, as I said, the challenges that are being met when we talk about security cooperation are not new and the challenges aren’t going to change. So where there had been particular provocations by competitors and adversaries, that is something that isn’t going to change. And again, the requirements that our partners have that would be – make them more interoperable with the West or more interoperable with the United States, those requirements don’t change.
MR BROWN: Great. Next, can we go to the line of Katerina Sokou with SKAI TV?
QUESTION: Did you discuss at all the prospect of pushing forward the sale of F-35s to Greece? And if so, would it be a government-to-government sale?
And a wider question is you talked about visiting Souda Bay, and the USS Woody is homeported there. What is the future you envision for Souda Bay going forward?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Thank you. I’ll start with Souda Bay and go backwards. Souda Bay provides a significant logistical lily pad. It’s actually not a large imprint. That, of course, is important for logistics support not only to U.S. and Hellenic naval and air interests. It actually does provide support for other NATO interests. So yeah, I mean, it’s – there is a long-term investment there. Again, not a large physical imprint, but a very high-trafficked one that we are committed to, and one that our Hellenic counterparts are committed to.
You asked about future air requirements. Yes, I mean, there’s certainly – we are always going to look at large airframe requirements with our partners and addressing those capabilities. Your question about government-to-government: In general, government-to-government, which is also known as Foreign Military Sales or the FMS process, is usually preferable when we’re talking about a significant platform or capability like the Joint Strike Fighter or the F-35. Why? It certainly is helpful when we’re talking about the contracting process and the requirements and the particular needs that may need to be addressed with an ally or a partner. Certainly can’t preview developments in that space, but safe to say that on any large procurement like the F-35, the FMS process is definitely preferred.
MR BROWN: Okay. Next, can we can go to the line of Shaun Tandon with AFP?
QUESTION: A follow-up on Katerina’s question: I was wondering to what extent Turkey figured in the discussions that you had, the recent incidents, the recent concerns of both Greece and the Republic of Cyprus about Turkish exploration. Do you think that factors in at all in their decision making when it comes to defense relationships, and to what extent did you discuss this with them?
And if I could go specifically on – you mentioned with Cyprus concerns about Russian ships. Is that something where you received any type of assurance on the side of the Cypriots? Do you see that as something that potentially will impede a further lifting of the arms embargo in Cyprus? Thanks again.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Yeah. So, I mean, we’ll start with Cyprus. Yeah, so as I mentioned, what we were lifting there was on articles of a limited nature, of a non-kinetic nature. And of course, we opened up the opportunity for education and training. But that said, for us to go further with the Republic of Cyprus, we do need to see further assurances on their ability to deny port access to Russian naval vessels. Those are very honest conversations. We certainly appreciate the legacy nature as to those port calls. We certainly appreciate where there may have been some historic economic interest.
But again, moving forward as Cyprus takes a greater role in the Eastern Mediterranean and it takes on greater responsibilities that are supportive of European Union as well as NATO requirements, we do need to be more interoperable with them, and that does require addressing the portage issue. Once we get there, I think we maybe will be able to address some further opportunity. Certainly, there is desire in the United States to proceed. It is why, when we look at the Eastern Mediterranean Security Act as well as the Energy Partnership Act of 2019, why Cyprus factors in that space and why we are looking to have a closer relationship with them bilaterally and multilaterally.
To your question about Turkey, Turkey of course we want to keep in the West. They have a role in the alliance. But we also don’t abide by any provocations from Ankara to allies and partners. We certainly have discouraged any provocational behavior. We have encouraged that Turkey and Greece and Turkey and Cyprus be able to de-escalate for a number of reasons: One, on a practical level we certainly want to avoid any kind of particular accident that could occur with so much traffic and potential risk. And then also from a NATO standpoint, using NATO challenges – I’m sorry, using NATO channels to actually work to de-escalate. It is to no one’s benefit, including Turkey’s, for there to be an escalation in this space.
MR BROWN: Next let’s go to the line of Ilhan Tanir.
QUESTION: Thank you so much, Assistant Secretary. Turkey question already asked. I just wanted to follow up with this. Usually, any U.S. officials visit Athens or South Cyprus usually also goes to Ankara or the Turkish Cyprus. This time we did not see either Secretary Pompeo’s visit or your visit. Is there any particular reason for that?
And the second question whether you have any kind of update on Turkish S-400 test, whether you see any kind of sanctions over the horizon considering the elections are tomorrow.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: All right, I’ll start with the S-400, and of course, there is nothing really new here. The United States has been very clear with Turkey, with our counterparts, the acquisition, the procurement of the S-400 is definitely unacceptable. It runs the risk of sanctions. You asked that. I mean, we already had to take decisive action last year when the United States had to remove Turkey from the Joint Strike Fighter program, the F-35 program.
That said, we still encouraged conversations with Ankara. We still are communicating with our Turkish counterparts to seek to have the S-400 not operationalized. Why? This does become a challenge when we talk about interoperability between Turkey and the United States, but also interoperability within the NATO alliance.
So as to your question about sanctions, they’ve always been a consideration. One thing to remember when we talk about the CAATSA statute, there is no predetermined timeline or clock on the review, consideration, or issuance of sanctions. So it’s something that we’ve sought to avoid because of Turkey’s alliance with us and with NATO, but I would just say that to presume that they are no longer viable is also not accurate.
And then to your question about visiting Turkey, we certainly have colleagues going in and out of Turkey at a regular basis. One of my counterparts in the European Bureau, Phil Reeker, was recently in Turkey. So it’s not uncommon for us to be there. It’s a regular point. And again, we do have warm lines of communication, of course, with our ambassador, David Satterfield, in Ankara.
MR BROWN: Okay, next question we’ll go to the line of Jared Szuba.
QUESTION: Hi, sir. Thank you for doing this. I’m wondering if the U.S. has eyed any potential alternatives to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey for – you had mentioned part of this trip was looking at things ten – five, ten years down the road. I’m wondering if the U.S. has identified any potential alternatives and if that had anything to do with this trip.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Yeah, I would overall generalize: When we talk about looking at opportunities, I would open up the aperture, to use a military term, as far as looking at where we could have a U.S. presence either in a rotational fashion – we already do in Novo Selo Training Area. That’s a good example where there’s already a persistent rotational presence. But we are certainly looking at where we could do that elsewhere across the continent.
So it’s not unusual to be seeing officials like myself actually taking some time to do some site assessments. We, of course, want to see where we’ve invested some of our security assistance to improve facilities for sovereign use by allies and partners. But when we’re looking at, again, the macro of the entire continent, as you know, through the frame of great power competition, the United States has taken a closer look at where we need to be or maybe where we need to adjust our posture in particular places.
I would offer that when we talk about presence, it doesn’t always have to necessarily translate to PCSing, or Permanent Change of Station, or residency, but there is certainly a broad, deep look across the entire what one would call the European geographic combatant command as far as where we need to be and where we may need to be in the future.
MR BROWN: Okay. If there are any further questions, dial 1 then 0. We’ll give it a few seconds. All right, I’m not seeing any – actually we have one more question. We’ll call that the last. Open the line of Ben Marks.
QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?
MR BROWN: Yes. Yeah, go ahead, Ben.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you, Assistant Secretary Cooper. I just want to follow up on Secretary Pompeo’s comments last week that the U.S. had opening consultations with Japan on a cost-share agreement. Do you have any updates as to when formal negotiations might start? Would they start during – before January, before there could potentially be a new administration?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Yeah, no, thanks for the question. Yes, that’s correct. Our team had started the preparatory consultations back in mid-October and continue to do that. What I can tell you without going into detail is that we will begin formal – I’m sorry, formal negotiations shortly. So the lead negotiators from our side, that’s the senior advisor in my part of the department, Donna Welton. Donna is going to be leading the Department of State’s negotiations with her counterpart from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo.
We have certainly – if you go back to October, as you mentioned the Secretary cited there was a very healthy exchange of views on the mutual contributions that both Japan and the United States make to the alliance, and we certainly agreed to work in a very deliberate fashion. So to your question about formal negotiations before January, the short answer is yes. I’m not going to preview the frame in that space. But as you can imagine looking at the calendar, the expiry for the host nation’s support agreement is in March of 2021, so it is – it’s incumbent upon us and our Japanese counterparts to actually continue to maintain focus on the negotiations now.
MR BROWN: Okay, with that, that are no other questions in the queue. Thank you to Assistant Secretary Cooper for taking his time today and for everyone who joined the call. And since this is the end of the call, the embargo on the contents is lifted. Have a great afternoon.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Thank you.