Transcript

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov Hold Joint Press Conference

March 19, 2022
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III; Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov

PRIME MINISTER KIRIL PETKOV: (through translator) Allow me first of all to thank Secretary of Defense of the U.S. Lloyd Austin III because in this critical juncture at the moment he showed real true allied support to Bulgaria and to the Bulgarian government. The war that Putin started put all Europe at-risk. Unfortunately there is now not a single country that can live with the illusion that they are safe and secure.

We should not forget that this complex situation nobody can defend themselves alone. And our security lies with the collective security with our allies within NATO. We are NATO. 

And my special thanks go to Lloyd Austin and the U.S. because they were the first to respond to our demand -- to our -- to what we asked NATO to reinforce and enhance the battle group that we are a framework nation for and with the multinational element. 

So the U.S. have agreed to give us a striker company to contribute to our battle group and this is a strong sign and I hope that this sign is a sign to our -- a signal to our NATO allies to also contribute to our troops. 

This battle group will be under the securest commander -- commandment -- command and we will offer that the commander will be Bulgarian of this battle group. I'd like to claim -- to say that the situation that we are in now after Putin has started -- Russia has started this war is that the Bulgarian government has decided to reinforce our defenses. 

And the Bulgarian society, the public can lie -- can rest assure that because we are allies -- as allies we will be reinforcing our defenses together. Other topics that we discussed; military mobility from the Mediterranean Sea we can start connect (inaudible) Varna Constansa with a road connection, with a railroad connection, with energy infrastructure. There will be a bridge over the Danube River. So the two governments will be working in that direction because logistics is just as important as military equipment that will be sent over so that we can have really working defense along the eastern flank.

Fight against corruption, combating corruption is also a common a task that we have because this is something that affects both national security and stability along the eastern flank. So this is another matter where we still have a lot of common joint work to do. 

Now to the Bulgarian audience I would like say -- and the media I would like to say very clearly that we have not discussed any military assistance to Ukraine. We have not discussed that at all and all the fake news that we've seen, we've heard in the public until now are -- I can just overthrow that. This is not a fact, we are working together to reinforce the eastern flank of NATO but nothing more than that has been discussed.

So thank you and I'd like to thank again, the Secretary of Defense for his visit and I would like to -- you have my word that we will be working together every step of the way. Because the U.S. -- America's NATO and Bulgaria's NATO. Thank you.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Well good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining us. Prime Minister Petkov and I just had a very productive discussion about Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and NATO's strong and unified -- united support and response. 

We also discussed a range of important and bilateral defense issues and now it's important to me to be here in-person at this critical time to condemn Russia's reckless and ruthless aggression against a peaceful neighbor and to underscore our support for the Ukrainian people and to, once again, make clear how seriously the United States takes its NATO obligations.

Our commitment to Article V is iron clad. And now Putin's war of choice against Ukraine has been tragic. Russia's invasion has taken a terrible toll on Ukrainian lives including brave soldiers and far too many innocent civilians. 

Yet Russia's aggression has galvanized the Ukrainian people, NATO and the free world. In our conversation the Prime Minister and I were both struck by the courage and the conviction of the Ukrainian people. They are fighting are against huge odds to defend their country. 

And their struggle is crucial for the rules based international order. And for the common values that Bulgaria and the United States share. Now we can see Bulgaria's committed to those common values in the warm welcome that you have given to so many thousands of Ukrainian refugees. And we applaud everything that you're doing to deliver urgently needed humanitarian assistance to civilians whose lives have been upended by Russia's needless invasion.

I also wanted to underscore the importance of the announcement that Bulgaria has established and is leading a NATO multinational battle group. It's an important step and we fully support it and we commend Bulgaria for its leadership. 

Mr. Prime Minister, our defense partnership has never been so strong. So thanks for being a great partner. And that strength was brought home to me yesterday when I met with U.S. and Bulgarian forces working and training closely together. 

Bulgaria is also working on important defense modernization efforts. As outlined in our bilateral 10-year roadmap for defense cooperation. And your commitment is a model for other allies to follow. Improving Bulgaria's military (inaudible) and NATO interoperability is even more vital today as Europe faces its largest security challenge in generations. 

So the United States will continue to stand strong with Bulgaria and our other NATO allies. And we'll continue to work together for a lasting peace and security in Europe. 

Mr. Prime Minister, thank you, again, for all that you are doing and for hosting us today. It's truly great to be here and I look forward to entertaining some questions. 

Q (through translator): Here you are. From the Bulgarian National TV to Defense Secretary Austin, even though Prime Minister Petkov has already been clear on this I still want to ask you as well, have you discussed any assistance to be provided from Bulgaria to Ukraine by say providing small arms or heavy armament and equipment and munitions of Soviet make? 

What would you -- how would you consider such a -- such an action on the part of Europe and would you discuss it in the future?

SEC. AUSTIN: (Inaudible) as the Minister just said, in that -- our conversation was focused on what we can do to strengthen the eastern flank here and what we can do to increase interoperability. And we also talked about the things that our forces are doing together and certainly we remain grateful for his leadership and to Bulgaria for hosting a battle group here and moving out very smartly, very quickly to stand up that battle group. 

Also many thanks for all the humanitarian efforts that you have provided and for, again, taken care of the 80,000 plus refugees that have come through Bulgaria. That's greatly appreciated by the entire international community. 

Q (through translator): How do you see the role of Bulgaria? What role can Bulgaria play into strengthening the NATO Black Sea eastern flank? Is there any threat? The question is to both ministers.

MIN. PETKOV (through translator): Like I said in my introduction, no country can feel 100 percent safe and secure. What we can do, we can feel that we are strengthening and reinforcing our security only when we stand together and we were working together. 

What we learned over the past three weeks is that only -- it is only when all allies within NATO are speaking in one voice and only when all of us within the European Union are speaking in one voice, only then is our security really reinforced, increased and strengthened. And this will be true not only along the eastern flank, but also with regard to Black Sea security. Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Yes, I certainly agree with the prime minister. I would just add that it's important that we have the right capabilities to be able to defend Bulgaria and to be able to add value to the overall NATO effort. But beyond that, it's also important to be interoperable, to be able to work together at a moment's notice, and you can't do that at the last minute.

In order to have true interoperability, you have to work together frequently, almost daily, to make sure that you can communicate, that you understand each other's tactics, techniques and procedures, that we have common logistics that can support the fight. And all of these things are things that we are working on now and that we'll continue to work on going forward.

So it's a real pleasure for our troops to be here and to work with great partners. We have tremendous respect for -- for your military and for your leadership and for the people of this country.

Q: Hi, I'm Felicia Schwartz from The Financial Times. Secretary Austin, defense officials have said in recent days that the Russians are looking to resupply and reinforce with troops from outside of Ukraine. Are you seeing any signs this has begun? And what does it mean if and when that does happen?

And Mr. Prime Minister, are there any circumstances that Bulgaria would provide military assistance to Ukraine? What are those circumstances? Would the S300 be a consideration in the future if that happens? Thanks.

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, thanks. We've not seen any evidence that they've made -- they're moving in large numbers of forces recently. But I -- because of the fact that they've stalled on a number of fronts, their -- it makes sense that they -- he would want to increase his capability going forward, we've just not seen that yet.

But again, the most -- the smartest thing that he could do right now is to make a decision to end this conflict. And, you know, he's passed by a number of opportunities to off ramp, deescalate and try to settle this through negotiations, and we call upon him to do so. Go ahead.

MIN. PETKOV (through translator): I'd like to answer to your questions. Bulgaria has already sent a lot of humanitarian aid, medications. We are working with the Red Cross and we're trying to help in -- to send humanitarian aid as quickly as possible to people in need.

In addition to that, and a part from that, even in -- during the talk that I had with Mr. President Zelenskyy, he thanked me personally for Bulgaria because Bulgaria opened its doors for Ukrainian refugees. And what he said is -- he said my army is fighting -- is -- we are much more rest -- we are at peace when we are fighting when we know that our women and children are safe.

And Bulgaria will continue to do anything in its power to assist Ukrainians in that huge conflict and -- and that huge suffering due to the Russian aggression. But being so close to the conflict, just right now I have to say that currently, we will not be able to send military assistance to Ukraine. This will not be possible as of now, but this type of military assistance should -- should only happen, potentially, only if it is approved by the Bulgarian parliament.

So currently, we are only talking humanitarian aid here, open doors. We are embracing the refugees from Ukraine, and what we can do is to have enhanced presence along the eastern flank to follow a common United States strategy with all our allies in NATO to speak in one voice. This is where Bulgaria could be the -- at its strongest now.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister -- Mr. Prime Minister, I'm Bob Burns from Associated Press. A question for each of you, if I may. Mr. Prime Minister, you said a couple of times today that now that Russia has invaded Ukraine, no country is safe and secure. My question is now that the -- the war has gone on for more than three weeks, how do you assess the -- the danger, the risk that -- that President Putin will choose to -- to extend the war into Moldova or elsewhere in Europe?

And -- and may I also ask a question of Secretary Austin at the same time. Mr. Secretary, you know, since the beginning of the war, it's been said that the Russian forces have essentially been bogged down or to some extent stalled in the north, but that they have made more progress in the south. I'm wondering if more recently, in recent days, you've seen indications that they've, in fact, begun to lose their momentum in the south?

And at the same time, do you see them still aiming to take -- to try to take Odessa? And if they did, what would be the strategic importance of them having the entire North Black Sea coastline? Thank you.

MIN. PETKOV (through translator): Thank you. Thank you for this question. Moldova, to us, would be a source of concern because Moldova is not a NATO country, it is a small country. Currently, over 5 percent of their population is now con -- constitutes Ukrainian refugees. Their export trade is now severely reduced due to the war in Ukraine, which prevents us from reaching their clients, customers, and also they already have Russian presence in some parts of their country.

Bulgaria was a very strong voice at the table of the European leaders and heads of state and government where we defended the statement that Moldova's way into the EU has to be mentioned in the declaration that we came up with. And to me, it was really important to support my colleague, my counterpart in Moldova, who fights everyday to keep stability in Moldova.

So yes, this is a source of concern and what we have to do is we have to extend our hand to Moldova and try and assist them. We also have a huge Bulgarian minority -- significant Bulgarian minority in Moldova, so this is a reason for our personal concern as well because these are Bulgarians, our compatriots, outside of our borders. 

And what we do hope is that their safety and security will be protected by the democratic government that is currently in place in Moldova, so Russian aggression should not think that it would ever be possible to step over their borders.

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks Bob. In terms of their -- the Russian's progress in the south, I would say that they've -- they continue to make incremental gains. I would also say that they've used some brutal, savage techniques in terms of the way that they've been targeting civilian populations -- centers. And -- and again, we would hope that they would choose a different path. 

They've -- the amount of pain that the civilians have endured down there is -- it's just been hard to -- to watch as they've continued to do that. In terms of their planning and whether or not they intend to make a move on that city or any other city in the south and the near term, and I -- I can't speak to Russian planning, I would just say that we don't see indications of that right now.

MIN. PETKOV: That's it. Thank you. Let's have a handshake.

SEC. AUSTIN: Okay.

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