Entries by Posted by Linda Rink (68)


Busy Week for Baltic Foreign Ministers

- Karin Shuey 4/4/17From left: John P. Walters (Hudson Institute), Minister Linkevicius, Minister Mikser, Minister Rinkevics. Photo courtesy of JBANC

All three Baltic Ministers of Foreign Affairs were in Washington recently for meetings with the Administration, Congress and think tanks.  Estonian Minister Sven Mikser, along with colleagues Edgar Rinkēvičs from Latvia and Linas Linkevičius from Lithuania, held discussions with numerous officials on U.S.-Baltic relations and reaffirmed the Baltic nations’ strong partnerships with the U.S.

Many of the points discussed during the week were summarized at an event on March 28th at the Hudson Institute, which established its relationship with the Baltic nations when it was the first Washington think tank to host the newly-appointed Baltic prime ministers back in 1991.  This event presented the foreign ministers in a panel format to consider the topic of the Baltic States and the Trump Administration and share the results of their meetings so far.

They began their remarks by outlining their conversations with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where U.S. officials reinforced their commitment to NATO and Article 5.  The Baltic leaders noted that they have had good cooperation with administrations of both parties since the 1990s and have no doubt that it will continue.  Both sides agreed that NATO needs to maintain the unambiguous message of deterrence established by the decisions made at the 2016 Warsaw Summit and that the multinational nature of the battalions deployed in the region shows that the Alliance is unified in doing just that.

While the Baltic leaders agreed that they won’t see a military altercation in their region despite the tendency of think tanks to speculate on the topic, several challenges were mentioned that require increased focus.  Hybrid threats, particularly propaganda and information warfare, remain a primary form of aggression from the Kremlin.  The ministers called for continued development of an organized, pragmatic approach and noted that the U.S. is coming to understand that it needs to address this threat.  The eleven nations participating in the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence are targeting propaganda from Russia and ISIS and would welcome more U.S. involvement.

Another key challenge is increasing popular support throughout member nations for Article 5.  There was consensus that Americans and Europeans value rules-based order and that the transatlantic community has benefitted from it.  National leaders need to do a better job of explaining to their citizens the importance of NATO and Article 5 in preserving their democracies and the institutions they rely on.

While in Washington, the ministers also attended the March 22nd meeting of the Ministers of the Global Coalition in the Defeat of ISIS.  They also met with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  They finished their week in Brussels at the meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers on March 31st.   Video of the Hudson Institute event is available at www.hudson.org/events


Estonian Embassy Bestows Awards at Independence Day Commemoration

The Estonian Embassy in Washington hosted a reception on February 22nd in honor of the 99th anniversary of Estonian independence.  Among those attending were officials, diplomats, and representatives from the State Department, Congress, the Pentagon and the National Security Council. Ambassador Marmei opened the ceremony with greetings from President Kaljulaid.  

The Ambassador bestowed presidential awards on three members of the audience.  Mr. James J. Townsend, Jr. received the Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana, 3rd Class for his contribution to security cooperation.  Mr. Townsend recently retired from his position as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European NATO Policy.  His work in European and NATO policy began around 1990 and was instrumental in the ascension of the Baltic nations into NATO membership.  He expressed deep appreciation for his recognition as an ardent supporter and good friend of Estonia.Ambassador Marmei presents award to Mr. Townsend (photo courtesy of Estonian Embassy)

Mr. Alexander Russell Vershbow was awarded the Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana, 2nd Class to recognize his work to enhance security cooperation.  Mr. Vershbow was the U.S. Ambassador to NATO from 1998 to 2001, then served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2001 to 2005.  In 2009, he was appointed as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, where he was responsible, among other things, for U.S. policy toward NATO, including supporting the continuing evolution of Estonia from new member to solid ally.  His career in European policy began in 1994 when he directed European Affairs at the National Security Council.

The citizen diplomacy award went to an Estonian-American in the Northern Virginia community, Mr. Tanel Beeren.  He was recognized for his contribution to promotion of Estonian culture in the Washington region.

The ceremony underlined the significance of players behind the scenes who don’t always get recognized for getting the important work done.  It also looked ahead to Estonia’s 100th anniversary of independence next year with gratitude and optimism for continued success and cooperation.


Legislation Update: Feb. 13, 2017

The Estonian American National Council (EANC) and the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) are stepping up their work on Capitol Hill in 2017 to raise awareness of issues affecting the Baltic region, to include the Baltic caucuses in each chamber of Congress and relevant legislation as it is introduced.  They have already delivered more than 100 letters to new members of the House inviting them to join the House Baltic Caucus (HBC) and to returning HBC members thanking them for supporting the Baltics and highlighting legislation already introduced this year. Similar letters are planned for the Senate Baltic Freedom Caucus in the coming weeks.

EANC and JBANC have met with three Congressional offices so far this year.  Staffers for Representative Gerald Connolly (D-VA), Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sat down with EANC, American Latvian Youth Association, and JBANC representatives to discuss legislation on topics including the Baltics, NATO, Ukraine and Russia.  The offices are striving to keep a bipartisan balance of support for these issues and frame them as important to national security, which should be a major concern for both parties.

The 115th Congress has already introduced several new bills that address European, and by extension, Baltic security.  One major piece of relevant legislation introduced this year is the Countering Russian Hostilities Act of 2017 (S.94).  It was submitted by Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and is currently cosponsored by a bipartisan group of eleven colleagues. It proposes comprehensive sanctions legislation on Russia for their cyber intrusions, aggression, and destabilizing activities in the U.S. and around the world.  More information is available in the official press release at Senator Cardin’s website (cardin.senate.gov).  Senator Cardin also introduced a bill to establish an independent commission to investigate Russian cyber intrusion operations in the 2016 U.S. elections (bill number S.27).  It has 18 cosponsors so far.

S.Res.54, introduced by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), is a resolution to express the unwavering commitment of the United States to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  It includes specific language on NATO troop deployments to the Baltics and recognizes Estonia’s defense budget as exceeding the NATO benchmark of 2% of gross domestic product within 10 years.

Representative Connolly introduced the Crimea Annexation Non-recognition Act (H.R.463) to make official U.S. non-recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which currently has 13 bipartisan cosponsors.  This bill is important because it shows U.S. commitment to respecting established borders as a requirement for maintaining international peace.  Also in the House is H.R.830 to contain, reverse and deter Russian aggression in Ukraine.  It was introduced by Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) and has 25 bipartisan cosponsors.

Legislative efforts are also underway to support the advancing of U.S.-Baltic relations and the security of Europe through continuation of funding (currently $3.4 billion) for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI). This funding allows the U.S. and our NATO allies to prepare for contingencies necessitated by Russia’s widening aggression against its neighbors.  ERI is part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which is part of the 2017 continuing resolution in effect through April.

Details for all of the bills mentioned above, and other relevant legislation, are available at the Congress.gov website.  They are easily found by searching by bill number or keyword.  House Baltic Caucus membership is listed at housebalticcaucus.webs.com.  Readers are welcome to check the lists of cosponsors for the members representing them and contact any missing offices.  EANC and JBANC appreciate your support.

- Karin Shuey


Sorting Out the Transition

The last several weeks have certainly been interesting.  Articles have been published almost daily that seem to contradict what was written the day or week before.  It’s difficult to know what information has substance and what is based in speculation.  While I have avoided giving too much credence to many analysis and opinion pieces because I just don’t think the authors have an omniscient crystal ball, a few events have stood out to me as reliable and worthy of note.

First, the 115th Congress has already shown support for the Baltics and European security.  Senators McCain (R-AZ), Graham (R-SC) and Klobachar (D-MN) made a post-Christmas European visit that included Estonia, where they pledged bipartisan commitment to NATO and Baltic defense (see this New York Times article). 

A new bipartisan bill was announced on January 10th to impose comprehensive sanctions on Russia for a range of hostile behavior.  The Countering Russian Hostilities Act of 2017 is cosponsored by a group of ten senators and calls out Russian cyber intrusions, continued aggression in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, and efforts to influence democracy and fuel corruption throughout Europe and Eurasia.  A detailed press release is available on several cosponsors’ websites

Toomas Hendrik Ilves and other European leaders have sent a clear message to the President-elect in the form of a letter outlining their concerns about the prospect of a grand bargain with Russia, the need to continue sanctions, and Putin’s record of untrustworthiness.  The letter highlights the signatories’ support for the U.S. as staunch allies with common goals and interests.  Please see the Washington Post article and full letter for more information. 

The Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson provided some insight regarding his views.  He made two important statements regarding the Baltics:   He affirmed his support for NATO deployments in the region as a show of force effective for deterring the Kremlin; and he called NATO’s Article 5 inviolable, pledging U.S. participation in a consensus-backed response to an attack on a member state.  He also recognized the Russian invasion of Crimea as a forceful takeover with no legal claim and agreed that respecting the sovereignty of nations and their borders is a fundamental part of maintaining international order and security.  He seemed clear in his differentiation between his interests and priorities as CEO of Exxon –  from which he stated he has divested himself and has left in the past – versus his responsibilities in serving U.S. national interests and security as the country’s top diplomat.  The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) vote will be the next step in Tillerson’s confirmation process.

EANC has been engaged in the transition, mainly as part of the Central and East European Coalition, by drafting and submitting questions for SFRC members to ask Tillerson in order to clarify his positions on issues relevant to the region.  Those questions have been posted on the CEEC website.  EANC will support the bill to counter Russian hostilities, and any other legislation that addresses pertinent European security policy, and facilitate efforts by our members and constituents to do the same.  Our activities in Washington will continue to ensure that the administration and lawmakers are aware of issues important to our Estonian American constituents, keep our constituents informed on news from the White House and the Hill, and support efforts with our regional partners to remain engaged in the policy process.Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting


JBANC Meets with Baltic Ambassadors

The Estonian embassy hosted the Baltic ambassadors and Baltic American community representatives for the fourth quarterly JBANC-Baltic embassies meeting in December 2016.  The ambassadors updated us on their countries’ priorities and upcoming events and a productive exchange occurred on many relevant topics. 

In addition to the three embassies and the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC), the meeting included representatives from the Estonian American National Council (EANC), the American Latvian Association (ALA), the Lithuanian American Council (LAC) and the World Federation of Free Latvians (WFFL). 

Two important December meetings were discussed.  The State Department-led Enhanced Partnership in Northern Europe (e-PINE) met recently with its eight Nordic and Baltic member nations and representatives from Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security.  E-PINE is a forum for interagency cooperation on security, economic and social issues.  The meeting addressed important topics relevant to ensuring continued cooperation through the transition to the next administration and beyond.  NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) meetings with Baltic government representatives and several Congressional leaders are also taking place in early December.  Participants noted that there is strong bipartisan commitment on the Hill to Baltic security and expect to be well-represented by the Republican Congress and administration.  There has been reassurance from leaders in Congress that there will be no major changes in U.S. policy on NATO or Russia after the inauguration.  The NATO PA meetings are expected to send strong messages of full Hill support back to the European member nations’ parliaments and populations.

Discussion of regional security issues was another major focus.  European Reassurance Initiative funding from the U.S. and NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) remain top priorities in all three nations.  Russia has continued its aggressive behavior with regular airspace violations and missile deployments in Kaliningrad and along its border with Finland.  While the nations are looking forward to multinational EFP deployments in the Spring of 2017, they will continue to pursue a permanent presence of U.S. troops embedded with the NATO forces.

There was support for increased Congressional staffer visits to the Baltics in the coming years in addition to the Congressional delegation schedule.  The embassies will focus on visits from the Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Foreign Affairs and Appropriations committees from both Houses of Congress to increase awareness in the new governments on both sides regarding issues of mutual interest.  The goal is for two staff delegation visits per year during the upcoming administration.

The Estonian ambassador offered information on recent changes in domestic government.  No big changes to security policy are foreseen.  While party dynamics have shifted, the Foreign Minister and Defense Minister appointments indicate a clear continuation of previous policies, with NATO and U.S. cooperation at the forefront.

The meeting’s overall tone was of unity and inclusion.  It’s important for the three nations to continue to work together with both parties on the Hill to draw more attention and attract a bigger audience than they could individually.  Their unified message for Moscow is that they can’t be considered the same as Ukraine and Georgia and that NATO will stand behind them.  These issues will be revisited at the next meeting, scheduled for February.

- Karin Shuey, 12/13/16

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