Entries by Posted by Linda Rink (65)

Tuesday
Oct032017

Estonian Experts Weigh in on Transatlantic Policy

Two major think tank events in Washington recently featured Estonian speakers on topics including reforming NATO for the 21st century, security challenges of the information age, defending NATO’s frontiers, and state sponsors of disinformation.  The Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) held its annual two-day conference on transatlantic security September 21-22, where Estonian Defense Minister Jüri Luik, Defense League commander Major General Meelis Kiili, and strategic communications expert Urve Eslas were among the top-level lineup of presenters and panelists.  The following week, the Atlantic Council held the first transatlantic forum on strategic communications to examine the influence of agents of destabilizing disinformation.  Former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves was a major contributor to that discussion.

At the CEPA forum, Minister Luik tackled what he considered the misconception that the Baltics are indefensible.  He deemed Estonia and its allies capable of creating an effective deterrent to conventional attack.  He cited the need for all NATO allies to overcome their political hurdles and meet or exceed the 2% benchmark for defense spending to further bolster the alliance’s deterrent posture.  He also stressed the role of the U.S. in coordination with the EU, stating that, “nothing can replace the U.S. … as the guarantor of security in Europe.”  He expressed high regard for the robust signals of support the U.S. has consistently sent on political and practical levels, calling out European Deterrence Initiative funding as a strong symbol of U.S. commitment to European security.Defense Minister Jüri Luik speaking at CEPA Forum 2017 (Photo courtesy of CEPA).

General Kiili shared his thoughts based on Estonia’s experience under 50 years of Kremlin-led Soviet occupation and the psychological aspects of Russia’s multi-layered strategies.  He called the current state of affairs a clash between democratic order and oligarchic order, and named education on the Kremlin’s efforts to establish moral equivalency between their actions and those of the West as the highest priority for rendering them ineffective.  He characterized Estonia’s Defense League as an opportunity for every citizen to exercise their obligation and right to participate in the defense of their country.

Ms. Eslas explained how information attacks have been a part of digital warfare since 2015 and are aimed at damaging the three key pillars of liberal democracy, namely freedom of speech, free and fair elections, and rule of law.  One focus of countermeasures should be to strengthen those pillars.  She cited evidence of Internet bots (software applications that run repetitive tasks, like retweeting targeted messages) and their use in propagating disinformation, and made the point that limiting bots does not amount to restricting free speech for actual people.  She then outlined the challenge of overcoming the Kremlin’s propaganda campaign.  If Russian policy assumes that NATO is a threat and that all media is propaganda, then any attempt to counter those assumptions becomes fodder for more propaganda and justifies the false narratives.  We can understand disinformation in three parts:  sender, receiver and message.  While much is known about the senders and the messages, we need better understanding of the receivers in order to neutralize propaganda’s effectiveness.

The Atlantic Council event further highlighted the growing preponderance of weaponized fake news, politicized corruption, digital magnification of disinformation, and unattributed advertisements.  It also pointed out that the West has created the conditions for these tactics to thrive by permitting the creation of anonymous shell corporations for money laundering, allowing special interests to operate without transparency, and holding online advertising to lesser standards than advertising in conventional media.  Sunlight and transparency were identified as the enemies of these practices and there was consensus that legislation requiring greater transparency is needed in all aspects of the problem.

President Ilves offered his observations on the Kremlin’s strategies.  He cited as his main concerns:  doxing (the practice of publishing private information on individuals or organizations, typically with malicious intent), Twitterbots magnifying false stories (as mentioned above), psychological manipulation, non-attributed ads on social media, and using metadata to target ads to sway opinion.  He noted that social media platforms have become more popular sources of news than traditional outlets, which adds to our vulnerability.  There has been a noticeable shift since 2014 – earlier, fake news was more easily identified and refuted or ignored by trusted news sources.  In recent years, even reliable outlets and print media publishers have started giving more attention to disinformation in the name of balanced reporting, while in fact they are actually skewing the picture in the favor of fake news.  When even outrageous lies get equal time with fact-based reporting, many consumers of the information draw the false conclusion that the truth is somewhere in the middle instead of accepting the factual reports.Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (center) discusses Russian disinformation tactics, joined by Edward Lucas (left) and Peter Pomerantsev.

President Ilves also brought up the Gerasimov doctrine – a 2013 article by Russia’s chief of the General Staff at the time that outlined the use of non-military tactics not just to augment the traditional tools of war, but as the preferred means to win the war.  Ilves warned against the danger of focusing too much on just fake news because this doctrine includes a broad spectrum of ways to manipulate and sow discord.  There is no reciprocal response.  Western nations can limit visas, enact laws against money laundering, investigate suspicious deaths, and watch and document how these tools are used but no collective defense has yet been developed.

The presence of Estonian representatives at both of these events shows that the tiny nation’s expertise is highly valued in NATO and the transatlantic partnership.  Estonia’s unique historical experience with threats from the east has ingrained in its population a deep understanding that its NATO and EU allies lack.  It was clear among both audiences and the other speakers that the Estonians’ voices on these matters were respected, and that they will be invited back on a regular basis as understanding of the threat from the Kremlin evolves. 

For summaries and video of the CEPA and Atlantic Council events, please see www.cepaforum.org and www.atlanticcouncil.org/events/webcasts/stratcom-dc.  For more information on the Gerasimov doctrine, please look for Molly McKew's Politico article on the topic.

- Karin Shuey

Thursday
Sep142017

Perspective on ZAPAD 2017

- By Karin Shuey 9/14/17

As Russia’s quadrennial military exercise Zapad gets underway, there’s no shortage of analysis and commentary on what to expect.  Scheduled to start on September 14th and run for seven days, Zapad 2017 has been a hot topic among think tanks, NGOs, Russia experts, military experts, and other interested parties for the last several months.  The most comprehensive source of information may be the Center for European Policy Analysis and its dedicated website, Road to Zapad 2017 (infowar.cepa.org/the-road-to-zapad-2017).  That said, countless other sources, including the Atlantic Council, Baltic Times, Military Times, National Interest, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL, and German Marshall Fund, have contributed to varying degrees on the topic.

The main question posed in the coverage has been about whether or not the West should be worried.  Although fictitious adversarial states were created for the exercise, the scenario has been reported as a simulation of a NATO attack on Belarus, with Russia coming to its neighbor’s aid in defending the attack.  There is general consensus that the number of troops Russia is sending exceeds that of past Zapads and that Russia is not meeting the reporting requirements laid out in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Vienna Document.  Russia and Belarus have put the number at less than 13,000 – the level at which the Vienna Document mandates OSCE inspections –  while previous exercises have approached the 100,000-troop mark.

The worst-case outcome would be Russia’s use of the exercise as a cover for stationing permanent troops or equipment in Belarus, an intention they have demonstrated in past large-scale exercises, as in Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008.  Previous Zapad exercises have simulated invasion of the Baltic states, a nuclear strike on Warsaw, and bombing runs against Sweden, but did not end in violation of any nation’s sovereignty.  While Belarus has invited military observers from seven countries – Ukraine, Poland, Sweden, Norway and the three Baltic nations – to take part in specific visitors’ days, this, too falls short of OSCE transparency measures.

Russia is downplaying the scale of Zapad, accusing the West of overreacting and risking stability in Europe with its concurrent buildup of NATO forces in the region.  They characterize the event as practicing strictly defensive maneuvers and that they pose a threat to no one.  Meanwhile, educated viewpoints in the West criticize the scenario as completely unrealistic and place responsibility for any instability along Russia’s borders squarely in the hands of the Kremlin.

The Estonian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has indicated distrust of the numbers reported by Moscow based on past experience with other Russian exercises and has been closely monitoring preparations for this one.  According to a news article on the MoD website, Minister Jüri Luik is “…hoping to see greater transparency and observance of international agreements both prior to and during the exercise” (see kaitseministeerium.ee/en/news for 28.08.2017).  Estonian representatives will take part in the observer program 16-20 September and Estonia’s defense attaché will attend a program for all defense attachés accredited to Moscow at the Luga training ground, about 90 miles south of St. Petersburg, 18-19 September.

An interested party could spend days trying to digest all the information available on different aspects of Zapad 2017.  Until the exercise is finished and its aftermath is clear later in September, much of what has been written so far will remain speculation.  While there are indications that troop movements and naval deployments exceed what Russia and Belarus have reported, and it seems likely that far more than 13,000 soldiers will be mobilized, the endgame will only be revealed once the dust settles.  Analysis and commentary at that point will undoubtedly be much more consequential.

Graphic of Russian and Belarusian participation as reported by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Source: Reuters.

Tuesday
Aug152017

EANC Meets with State Department

- Karin Shuey, 8/15/17

Estonian American National Council representatives joined Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) colleagues for a briefing from the Department of State (DoS) Baltic team on Friday, August 11th.  The newly appointed Director of Nordic and Baltic Affairs, Ian Campbell, and desk officers for Latvia, James Lovell, and Lithuania, Carol Werner, shared their insights on policy and current and upcoming events relevant to U.S.-Baltic relationships.

The visit to Estonia by Vice President Mike Pence on July 30-31 was a main topic of discussion.  Tallinn was his first stop on a European trip that also included Georgia and Montenegro.  He addressed the three Baltic presidents and military troops from Estonia, the U.S., the United Kingdom, and France, serving in the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) in Estonia, at the Estonian Defense Forces headquarters in Tallinn.  His remarks reflected the close relationship and keen understanding the Administration holds regarding security challenges in the Baltic region and beyond – a message that got stronger as his trip progressed.  The vice president’s full remarks are posted on the White House Briefing Room Speeches & Remarks page for July 31st.  Our State Department colleagues reported that the he was glad to also discuss a broad range of non-security issues, including Estonia’s EU presidency; energy, economic and financial cooperation; trade and investment; and collaboration on cyber security.  The next opportunity for Baltic leaders to engage with the Administration will likely be at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

Russia was another major topic covered.  The Zapad military exercise in mid-September is of concern to all and will be closely monitored.  While confidence was expressed in the EFP’s ability to keep a close eye on the exercise, there was less certainty in Russia’s reporting of the numbers of troops taking part and what course of events the exercise scenario will take.  Determination of any U.S. response will depend on observation of what actually happens, which EFP troops are well-positioned to do.

The DoS representatives emphasized that not all interaction with Russia is negative.  While the Kremlin is not doing the right thing in basic international relations, most notably in its invasion of Crimea and violation of several nations’ sovereign borders, there are areas where maintaining good relations is important.  Open channels of communication regarding our nuclear arsenals is critical to global security.  Trade and cooperation on space programs are other examples where continuing dialog is good for both sides.  The U.S. should be hard on Russia for violations of international law and other crimes, but it’s a complex relationship and we can’t close doors on all collaboration.

The recently-passed sanctions bill serves as a clear condemnation of Russia’s bad behavior.  Congress is now in the process of negotiating how to implement the sanctions in concert with U.S. allies; what form it will take is still in question.  It’s important to send a deliberate message of censure while understanding the economic partnerships involved.  The U.S. will remain sensitive to those partnerships and will avoid putting them at risk throughout the course of implementation.  One early indication that Russia is taking the sanctions seriously was their expulsion of U.S. diplomats in response to the bill’s passage in Congress.  We can be optimistic that the sanctions will effectively deter future Russian transgressions.

Other priorities discussed included energy security and the campaign against disinformation.  Even with proposed budget cuts to State’s Global Engagement Center, propagating objectivity through public diplomacy will remain a mainstay of the embassies’ missions.   There are multiple funding streams and many levels of approach that will keep combatting disinformation a top priority.  Energy independence also remains a major concern and DoS will continue to support a competitive market with access to options so no nation’s energy will be controlled by a single source.

Finally, our DoS colleagues expressed awareness of the importance of the Baltic nations’ centennial celebrations next year.  They are fully confident that each embassy will be involved with programs and events supporting its host nation’s milestone.  The State Department is also looking at options for recognizing 100 years of Baltic independence and will keep us informed as their plans develop.  They clearly share the same concerns for Baltic security that EANC and JBANC are engaged in daily and we appreciate their continued support.

Friday
Jul282017

CEEC Releases 2017 Policy Summary

- Karin Shuey, 7/25/17

The Central and East European Coalition (CEEC) recently published its annual policy brief, listing the legislative priorities the group is focusing its advocacy efforts on this year.  Highlights include upholding current sanctions against Russia for its occupation of Ukraine and enacting new sanctions in the wake of interference in U.S. elections last year; ensuring State Department funding remains sufficient to conduct effective diplomacy and continue support to our non-NATO partners; expanding the Visa Waiver Program to include Poland; and closely monitoring Russia’s large-scale Zapad exercise in September for indications that the Kremlin may expand its military aggression into new areas.  The full paper is available at ceecoalition.us.

CEEC members are currently conducting meetings with the offices of House Foreign Relations Committee (HFAC) members to share the policy brief and hear their views on the progress of the group’s top priorities.  Office calls have been scheduled with eight HFAC offices so far.  Senate Foreign Relations Committee offices will also be targeted.

The CEEC was established in 1994 and is composed of eighteen national, membership-based organizations representing Americans of Armenian, Belarusan, Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak, and Ukrainian descent.  It was established to coordinate the efforts of ethnic organizations whose members continue to maintain strong cultural, economic, political, and religious ties to the countries of Central and East Europe and serves as a liaison with these national Central and East European ethnic organizations.  These organizations cooperate in calling attention to issues of mutual concern, especially regarding United States policy toward Central and East Europe. It has cooperated on a wide range of issues including calling attention to Russia's policies toward its neighbors, NATO enlargement, and U.S. assistance programs for the region.  EANC has been an active member since the coalition’s inception.

EANC and CEEC colleagues met with Representative Diaz-Balart's (R-FL) staff to share priorities and discuss policy.

Monday
Jul102017

EANC Interview with Speaker of Parliament Eiki Nestor

By Karin Shuey. June 27, 2017

The Speaker of the Estonian Parliament Eiki Nestor was in Washington June 26-28 for a Nordic-Baltic Eight (NB8) conference to foster transatlantic relations.  The NB8 includes Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden in a format that focuses on regional cooperation.  Parliamentary speakers from all nations except Denmark took part in the visit.

EANC President Marju Rink-Abel and Washington, DC Director Karin Shuey were given the opportunity to interview Speaker Nestor.  While not direct quotes, the answers below reflect the substance of Speaker Nestor’s responses.

1. The purpose of your visit to the U.S. is the Nordic-Baltic 8 conference in Washington, being held from June 26-28.  What are the important topics discussed?  Have any decisions or agreements been reached?

Answer:  Meetings were held with Speaker Paul Ryan, the State Department, Commerce, the Vice President’s staff, Senator Menendez and other offices. Discussions have been frank.  The NB8 is based on common regional understanding even without common memberships in European and transatlantic organizations (i.e., some members belong to NATO, others to the EU, and some to both).  We’ve made recent visits to Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova to encourage politicians and NGOs to work toward independence and being part of the Western world.  If we lose those countries, they’re likely to fall into Russian influence.  The NB8 works to both secure ourselves and to help the vulnerable nations in Europe.  The Baltic nations serve as bridge for higher aspirations, showing what is possible to those facing challenges.

In the U.S., the NB8 seeks to relate to the larger Congress and Administration.  We want to hear what’s going on here and don’t want to be left alone.  We work to strengthen transatlantic ties and to convince officials here that those ties are in the interest of the U.S., too.

In our meeting with Senator Menendez (D-NJ), he affirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO’s Article 5.  His comments were reassuring, stating that it is easy to find common ground and strong partners in Congress.  [Highlights from the meeting with Speaker Ryan are provided below.]

2.  Security of the Baltic region is a major concern not only to the Baltic peoples but also to Baltic Americans.  What is the latest information about Russian incursions into Estonian airspace and other means of intimidation?  What deterrence approaches are working and what more needs to be done?

Answer:  Good Nordic and NATO cooperation and boots on the ground are very important.  Russia is not much different from the Soviet Union – its behavior is based on the face of the enemy and its leader must protect Russia from that enemy, which now is NATO and the EU.  No one believed Russia would invade Crimea or start a war in Ukraine.  We are in favor of sanctions and it’s important to understand that Russia acted first.  Their upcoming Zapad exercise (on the Belarus border) will be larger than previous exercises.  There are big concerns in Estonia that we need to be well-integrated in NATO and the EU.  Why would Russia spend so much money in an area where they have no interest?

3. What is the anxiety level among the population in Estonia?  Is there a difference in the Russian-speaking minority?  What steps is the Estonian government taking in this regard?  Are there specific actions aimed at the Russian speakers?

Answer:  Estonia launched ETV+, a Russian-language TV station in 2015 and it’s working well but it’s similar to Estonians watching Finnish TV during the Cold War – people are free to make their own choices. Social media disinformation is easy to propagate and it can be difficult to change to a new channel.  We can’t integrate the Russian population just through TV.  Younger people with Estonian education are more comfortable. Others miss the Soviet Union and aren’t comfortable in a Western environment.  Russian citizens in Estonia don’t think they need any kind of protection from Russia.  They see life in Ivangorod, are content where they are and don’t feel threatened.  Politicians need to avoid creating a political climate where Russian speakers grow up into enemies of Estonia. 

On an encouraging note, Estonia is the only new democracy in Europe with two years of positive population growth.  Some who left for other parts of the EU are now coming back – and a big draw is to get their children educated in Estonia’s strong school system.

4. What are the primary agenda items for the Riigikogu?  What do you hope to accomplish before the next Riigikogu elections in 2019?

Answer:  Presidency of the EU is the #1 focus.  Meetings with the European Parliament have already started.  Opening ceremonies are on July 4th and Estonians are well-prepared for the job, hoping to cultivate better understanding both ways.  We will promote the uniqueness of Estonian digital life, digital government and cooperation as tools against terrorism.

On a national level, we will promote local government and state reforms and have ideas for a new pension system.  Foreign policy and defense policy will remain strong and active; those are two committees in Parliament that work well in consensus despite the current six party system.

5. Estonians abroad, as well as activists in Estonia, have stated that they oppose the yet-to-be ratified boundary agreement (piirileping) with Russia.  What are the benefits to Estonia that will come from this agreement?  Considering recent Russian aggressive actions, why should any such important agreement be considered by the Riigikogu?

Answer:  A clear border with Russia is in Estonia’s security interest.  The Tartu Rahuleping is a holy document but would take huge changes in Russia to ratify, and Estonia won’t ratify it if Russia doesn’t.  Russia has said repeatedly that it’s “not a good moment.”  To have a signed agreement is not against the Tartu Rahu, though it probably won’t happen in the next two years.  The Zapad exercise contradicts the possibility that Russia will “find a good moment” anytime soon.

6. How familiar are you with the activities of Estonian Americans, particularly in the political sector?  What can the diaspora do to help Estonia's security in the future?

Answer:  I read Vaba Eesti Sõna regularly and encourage you to be proud Estonians.  Keep the language and culture going and keep your children and grandchildren interested.  Explain where Estonia is to your friends.  The Embassy here is very professional and very good at advocacy. The EU presidency also helps.

7. Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers in the USA?

Answer:  Don’t worry – Estonia is independent, free, and well-developed.  Lots of countries are trying to follow our example.  Good luck, be proud, and we hope to see you in Tallinn next year to celebrate our great 100-year milestone!

A press release from the Riigikogu at the end of the trip summed up Speaker Nestor’s impressions.  He stated that the joint visit went better than the NB8 group expected when they planned the trip late last year.  Since transatlantic relations were the main focus of this trip, reinforcement of firm U.S. support for NATO and Article 5 was well-received.  House Speaker Ryan’s office issued a statement after his meeting with the delegation stating that “Interparliamentary cooperation is a bedrock of our transatlantic alliances.  Together, we are determined to work toward a more safe and secure future…”  The Riigikogu’s press release, dated Thursday, 29.06.2017, is available on its website.  Speaker Ryan’s is posted at www.speaker.gov, dated June 28, 2017.

EANC thanks Speaker Nestor and his office for making the interview possible.  We wish them and Estonia the best in its term in the EU presidency and look forward to continuing our reporting of news on Estonia from both sides of the Atlantic.House Speaker Ryan met with his Nordic-Baltic counterparts, including Estonian Eiki Nestor (far right), on June 28th. Photo by Tomas Enqvist.