Entries by Posted by Linda Rink (62)

Thursday
Feb152018

Senate Committee Issues Major Report on Russia’s Assault on Democracy

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) in January released a comprehensive report on Russian President Putin’s asymmetric assault on Western democracy and commissioned by then-ranking member Senator Ben Cardin.  The press release for the report, including links to the full 206-page study, is available at the SFRC website under Ranking Member’s Press for January 10, 2018.  According to the press release, the document “comes one year after Senator Cardin introduced the Counteracting Russian Hostilities Act of 2017, which served as the basis for the sanctions package signed into law last August, and makes a series of recommendations to adequately bolster U.S. and European defenses and counter the growing Kremlin threat to democratic institutions.”

The report includes a section dedicated to the Baltic states (starting on page 100) that outlines several aspects of the problem in the region, such as the history of Russian government influence operations, vulnerabilities, organizations carrying out the operations, and efforts to counter the Kremlin’s actions.  The study identifies five Russian objectives that focus on:  ethnic division of the populations to control and manipulate their Russian minorities; creating mistrust toward the governments of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; undermining Western democratic values and instead promoting populism and radicalism; weakening Western alliances like NATO and the EU; and marginalizing the nations’ cultures and historical achievements so that the population will be less inclined to come to their governments’ defense.SFRC report cover

All three nations have taken action against state-sponsored Russian propaganda outlets by creating media literacy through education programs and establishing a center for professional Russian-language journalism, among other measures.  In Estonia, the government has instituted three Russian-language television stations that are watched by about 20 percent of the Russian minority population.  Even private citizens are organizing to expose disinformation in social media.

The study also credits the three nations’ intelligence services for their efforts to expose propaganda and influence networks.  Estonia’s Internal Security Service (Kaitsepolitsei or Kapo), along with its counterparts in Latvia and Lithuania, publishes annual reports of Russian intelligence activities and corresponding government responses.  The Eston Kohver case is cited as perhaps the most egregious incident in recent years.  The Estonian government holds a “zero-tolerance” policy toward illegal Russian intelligence activities and prosecutes caught operatives to the maximum extent of the law.  Their annual reporting also publicizes names of people and organizations who are suspected of working with Russian intelligence services.  Corruption, criminal circles, and areas such as the energy sector, where businesses are trying to influence state policy, are other major fields of Kapo’s concern.

The committee concluded their report with three main lessons learned.  They found that publicly reporting details of Russian intelligence activities is effective, strong cyber defenses are essential, and exposure to Western culture through exchanges and programs like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VOA) increases resilience.  To that end, RFE/RL-led program Current Time, in cooperation with VOA, was launched last year and is making great strides in providing balanced, spin-free Russian language news coverage over multiple platforms in Russia and nearly 30 other countries, including the Baltics.  Please see the RFE/RL press release from February 7th for details.

The report clearly highlights that Putin’s campaign against the West is relentless and will continue to evolve, and that it can be deterred.  Supporting U.S. programs to counter its effects and build resilience, at home and in unison with our European allies, is a major focus of EANC’s advocacy this year.  We will continue to follow the issue and welcome our community’s support in reaching out to Members of Congress to call for policy and action in neutralizing the Kremlin’s efforts to undermine democracy in our homeland.

-Karin Shuey

 

Monday
Feb122018

EANC Meets with State Department

Estonian American National Council (EANC) representatives recently joined Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) colleagues for a briefing from the Department of State (DoS) Baltic team.  The Director of Nordic and Baltic Affairs and desk officers for Latvia and Lithuania shared their insights on policy and current and upcoming events relevant to U.S.-Baltic relationships.  Representatives from the Global Engagement Center (GEC) and Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (BECA) were also present to brief us on their programs.

The meeting started by recognizing the centennial celebrations the nations are holding throughout 2018.  Each embassy has a long slate of events across the U.S. that State is facilitating to ensure their success.  The Department is also creating a pictorial display for one of their main lobbies showing the evolution of U.S.-Baltic relations over the years, highlighting significant events such as the 1940 Welles Declaration that established U.S. refusal to recognize Soviet annexation of the nations, and the U.S.-Baltic Charter of 1998 supporting the nations’ full integration into European and transatlantic structures and cooperation.

The display will coincide with a possible Baltic summit in the works for this spring in Washington with the three Baltic presidents.  The event will likely include two half-day programs.  The White House portion will not be open to the public while the second program, featuring U.S.-Baltic business opportunities, will encourage public interaction.  The embassies are coordinating with the Department of Commerce, private entities, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to highlight the success of Baltic business in the U.S.

The GEC representative described GEC’s work to counter disinformation by engaging at local levels with governments, NGOs, schools, social and civic leaders and others.  Having learned that issuing active rebuttals to false messages is ineffective, they have shifted their focus to helping their partners establish credibility through positive messaging and building resiliency.   In the Baltic countries, they are working with local organizations and agencies to identify the key goals of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns, create media literacy among audiences, and facilitate information sharing among the countries to improve their effectiveness against the information threat.

The discussion with the BECA representatives centered around proposals to reduce the number of J-1 visas, which allow foreign citizens to come to the U.S. as students, au pairs, participants in exchange programs, short-term workers and in other temporary capacities.   Participants emphasized the importance, both to the Baltics and to the U.S. Baltic communities, of educational opportunities, internships, exchanges, and the like, that require the J-1 visa. They recommended increasing, rather than decreasing, the number of visas available.

The meeting closed out with a review of upcoming events and agreement to mutually support each other wherever possible.  All in attendance clearly shared appreciation for the milestone this year marks for Baltic independence will continue work to strengthen U.S.-Baltic relations.

- Karin Shuey 2/7/18

Wednesday
Jan172018

U.S. to Sell Arms to Ukraine

In case you missed it, shortly before Christmas, the Administration announced approval to sell lethal arms to Ukraine.  According to the Washington Post on December 23rd, the approval includes “light weapons and small arms…from commercial U.S. manufacturers” that are defensive in nature. Response to the decision so far has been mixed, with some lauding the move while others warn of increased complications in U.S.- Russia relations.  Below are summaries of some of what has been published so far to help readers assess the move for themselves.

Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker issued a press release at www.csce.gov shortly after the decision.  He called it, “a good first step to give the Ukrainian people the means to defend themselves.”  Senator Wicker is also a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and is hopeful the approval will eventually extend to anti-tank weapons and other heavy arms.

A Voice of America article on December 22nd stated that a U.S. company had already been selling weapons to Ukraine since last year, having obtained an export license and working closely with the State Department and Department of Defense.  Licenses have been granted for small-scale purchases in the past on a case-by-case basis.  The article also reported that Congress has approved “$350 million in security aid for Ukraine in its most recent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), including $47 million for defensive lethal weapons.”  Final approval is contingent on the successful completion of the 2018 budget process. 

The Washington Post article cited above also reported that Russian officials rebuked the decision.  Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated that “U.S. weapons are capable of leading to new casualties in our neighboring country, and we cannot remain indifferent to that.”

The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reported on December 20th that while the approval didn’t include everything the Ukrainians had asked for, it was a significant shift in the administration’s policy.  A senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation observed that, ““The way it was not rolled out tells you something, that they are concerned about the perception of this. They are not trumpeting this as a major policy shift or signature policy priority,” presumably at least in part due to concern over how it will be received by the Kremlin.

A Ukrainian colleague of the Estonian American National Council (EANC) offered his assessment of the approval.  He indicated he was happy with the decision, but noted that the approval was for arms sales, not grants.  Without corresponding military financial aid, the Ukrainian budget would likely not allow for the purchase of the weapons.  He also observed that fighting had subsided in recent weeks and that President Putin might intend to lead the Ukrainians to believe that the weapons aren’t even necessary.

This story is clearly still developing, and many opinions have already been and will likely continue to be expressed.  EANC will continue to track it and keep its readership informed.  In the meantime, we will support our Ukrainian partners in advocating for financial aid to support the purchase of weapons and hope for a lasting resolution to the Russian occupation of their territory.

- Karin Shuey 1/17/18

Wednesday
Dec132017

House Baltic Caucus Celebrates 20 Years

The House Baltic Caucus (HBC) turned 20 this year and was recognized with an elegant reception on Capitol Hill attended by members of Congress, Baltic parliamentarians, embassy officials and other friends of the Baltics.  The event was organized by the embassies of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC), to thank caucus members for their support over the years and to welcome new members.  Distinguished participants included caucus co-chair, Representative John Shimkus (R-IL), and caucus members Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) and Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), along with Marko Mihkelson, Chairman of the Estonian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee; Solvita Āboltiņa, Chairwoman of the Latvian parliament’s National Security Committee; and Emanuelis Zingeris, Chairman, United States Caucus, Lithuanian Parliament.

After welcome remarks by JBANC managing director Karl Altau, Mr. Mihkelson thanked the HBC especially for its work during the process of NATO enlargement.  He noted that Estonia is not just a consumer of security but has also become a provider.  Estonian troops have been active members of many NATO deployments and are currently increasing their presence in Afghanistan.  As Russia is testing the West wherever it can, we can’t take the world order for granted and the HBC’s role will remain as important as ever. 

Rep. Barr thanked the three Baltic governments for their commitment to allocating 2% of their budgets to defense and outlined areas where continued cooperation will be important.  Working together on deterrence, sanctions oversight, and pressing the Administration on the importance of energy security are key areas of focus.  He stressed that Article 5 is alive and well, and the U.S. will continue to be side by side with its allies, standing united in bipartisan, bicameral support.

Rep. Shimkus thanked the audience for remembering their ancestry and pushing their members of Congress to remain engaged in the region.  He also applauded the Baltic nations for helping their neighbors as they struggle with evolving democracies.  Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have set commendable examples for other countries that yearn to be free.

The HBC’s membership now stands at 74, with 22 of those joining in 2017, thanks at least in part to outreach by JBANC, its parent organizations, and their constituents.  EANC is proud to actively support these efforts and will continue to do so.  We also invite Estonian Americans to check the list of HBC members at http://housebalticcaucus.webs.com and make a call to thank caucus members or ask Representatives not listed to join.  The last 20 years have shown that Congress supports the Baltic region and welcomes engagement from their Baltic-American constituents.  We look forward to the next two decades of security, stability and progress bolstered by continued strong U.S.-Baltic cooperation.

- Karin Shuey 12/13/17

Distinguished guests from left: Emanuelis Zingeris, John Shimkus, Solvita Āboltiņa, Marko Mihkelson, Andy Barr, Karl Altau. Photo by Peteris Alunan.

Tuesday
Oct312017

Baltic Ambassadors Discuss Priorities

The Lithuanian embassy recently hosted the Baltic ambassadors and Baltic American community representatives for this autumn’s quarterly JBANC-Baltic embassies meeting.  Ambassadors Lauri Lepik of Estonia and Rolandas Kriščiūnas of Lithuania were in attendance, while the Latvian embassy was represented by Deputy Chief of Mission Ilmars Breidaks.  The embassies updated us on their countries’ priorities and upcoming events, and a productive exchange occurred on many relevant issues. 

A primary topic discussed was the upcoming reception to recognize the 20th anniversary of the formation of the House Baltic Caucus (HBC).  The event is set for December 7th and will include a program of policy discussions and presentations showing appreciation for caucus members.  Parliamentary representatives from all three nations will be in Washington and a good turnout of Members of Congress is expected.  The HBC is a registered caucus of the United States House of Representatives; current membership is at 66 Representatives from both the Democratic and Republican parties.  More information and the full list is available at housebalticcaucus.webs.com.  All readers are invited to review the list for your Representative and to invite him or her to join if they have not already. 

Ambassador Lepik briefed the group on a recent meeting of NATO ambassadors and Members of Congress, which confirmed that NATO and European engagement have wide bipartisan support in both chambers.  The Senate continues its active role in foreign policy, indicating eagerness to act on the Russia sanctions bill that was signed into law during the summer.  Lepik identified as key goals working with Congress on the agenda for next year’s NATO summit, and planning an event with Congress and the White House to celebrate the Baltic nations’ centennial.  They are also closely following the appropriations process for European Deterrence Initiative and other NATO funding. 

JBANC’s update indicated 2017 might have been its busiest year since it worked toward NATO enlargement in the early 2000s, due to its push to advocate for the Russia sanctions bill.  Since the bill was signed into law, their focus has shifted toward meetings in Congress to encourage implementation of the sanctions.  Other issues they’re following include continued efforts in support of Ukraine and possible changes to visas that might affect interns and summer camp staff coming from the Baltics.  They also mentioned a major advocacy event the American Latvian Association is planning for next May, which may include new legislation tied to the Baltic centennial celebrations.

The meeting’s overall tone was positive and forward-looking.  It was followed by a reception hosted by the three ambassadors to celebrate productive cooperation between U.S. officials and the embassies, and to welcome newly arrived Baltic diplomats to their new postings.  It was well-attended by representatives from Congress, the State Department, the Pentagon and other agencies. 

The gathering validated the importance of continued cooperation among the three nations working together with both parties on the Hill to draw more attention and attract a bigger audience than they could individually.  EANC will remain engaged in supporting the embassies’ priorities and provide updates as all of these initiatives develop.

- Karin Shuey 10/31/17