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

Monday
Oct302017

A Guide to Grassroots Advocacy for Estonia

From Karin Shuey, EANC Washington DC Director:

As members of the 115th Congress settle into their new offices, it’s time for us to start thinking about how to make sure issues that impact Estonian security get those members’ attention.  EANC and the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) are stepping up our work on the Hill in 2017, and our efforts would get a big boost from parallel grassroots support.  There are a few things outlined here that we can already start focusing on.  If you are inclined to contact your Senators and Representative, we appreciate your support and provide information below and on our website to facilitate whatever action you choose to take.

There are a number of ways you can contact your Members of Congress (MoC).  Letters, e-mails and phone calls are the most common.   Several articles have been published recently indicating that phone calls to Congressional offices have more impact than written correspondence.  This New York Times article does a good job of explaining why and also how to make your calls as effective as they can be.   Voicing your issues in person – by visiting your MoC’s local office or attending any town hall meetings they host – can also get their attention, especially if you can get a group together.  You can look up your representatives and find links to their websites with local office information at whoismyrepresentative.com.

If you’re unsure of what to say, EANC and JBANC have drafted sample letters for you to use as a guide.  You may use the text in letters, e-mails or as talking points.  While the NYT article states that personal stories stand out more than scripted statements, it’s up to you to do what works best for your situation and comfort level.

One top EANC goal is to increase membership of the Senate Baltic Freedom Caucus (SBFC) and the House Baltic Caucus (HBC).   While neither caucus meets formally, by joining, MoCs pledge to support Baltic security and NATO unity.  The purpose of the caucuses is to maintain strong relationships with Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; promote democratic principles and human rights; assist in strengthening free market economies in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; and work to support legislation bolstering the defense of the Baltic countries.  Look for templates on Karin Shuey's blog "What's Happening in DC" at the right for your use in asking your MoCs to join.

The first 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 cosponsored by a bipartisan group of nine colleagues. It proposes comprehensive sanctions legislation on Russia for their cyber intrusions, aggression, and destabilizing activities in the U.S. and around the world.  Please see the official press release for more information and inspiration for calling your Senators.

EANC appreciates your local efforts to further causes that support Estonian security and European unity.  We are working in a dynamic environment and action on multiple levels could help us achieve our goals.  If you have any questions about what you can do, please contact our Washington, DC Director, Karin Shuey, at karinshueyeanc@gmail.com.

Monday
Oct092017

CEEC Hosts Panel of Foreign Policy Rock Stars

The Central and East European Coalition (CEEC) hosted a policy seminar on September 27th titled, Russia on NATO’s Doorstep:  the West’s Response to the Kremlin’s Wargames, to examine the aftermath of Russia’s Zapad 2017 military exercises.  The panel of experts consisted of Ambassador Kurt Volker, Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations; Dr. Stephen Blank, American Foreign Policy Council Senior Fellow for Russia; Ambassador Eitvydas Bajarunas, Ambassador-at-Large for Hybrid Threats, Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Alex Tiersky, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor, U.S. Helsinki Commission.  The discussion was moderated by CEEC colleague, Dr. Mamuka Tsereteli of the Georgian Association in the U.S.  Although analysis of the exercise will be ongoing for weeks, they offered their perspectives from their respective backgrounds and the information available so far.Panel line-up from right: Ambassador Volker, Ambassador Bajarunas, Dr. Blank, Mr. Tiersky, and moderator Dr. Tsereteli.

Ambassador Volker started off by acknowledging the CEEC’s important role in promoting NATO enlargement.  He encouraged the coalition to continue its work to remind Congress and policymakers that these countries matter and constituents of heritage from the region care about U.S. policy affecting it.  He then framed Zapad in a context of Russia on a trajectory that is still playing out.  In the 1990s, Russia was trying to find its place in Europe.  The Soviet Union had agreed to the fundamental principles of European security and cooperation outlined in the Helsinki Accords and seemed inclined to engage with Europe on those terms.  Then Putin came to power and Russia’s policies began to contradict democratic values, taking an imperialistic view over all Russian speakers wherever they lived.  Europe rejected him and concern over Russian expansionism set in. 

Volker saw Zapad 2017 in this context as a vehicle for the Kremlin to demonstrate to its neighbors, domestic population, and to western Europe, recent improvements in the Russian military’s capabilities, doctrine and funding.  At the same time, there was no indication of intent to expand geographically.  Sanctions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and increased activity in NATO have perhaps had an impact on Putin’s ambitions.  Since the invasion, Ukraine has elected a government that is the opposite of his presumed goal – it is unified, anti-Russian, and westward-looking.  Keeping the occupied territory in eastern Ukraine is coming at great cost to the Kremlin.  Volker sees his task as bolstering Ukrainian will to facilitate the removal of Russian troops and reestablish sovereignty, while creating the right conditions for the Kremlin to see the withdrawal of troops as in its own interests.

Dr. Blank identified the need for NATO to understand the threat before it can act effectively in consensus.   Russia sees itself at war with the West even if Europe doesn’t want to admit it.  Democratic transatlantic integration threatens Putin, who doesn’t acknowledge the post-Cold War settlement or sovereignty of any eastern European state.  He has no hesitation to exploit Western vulnerabilities, whether through corruption, access to energy resources, or ethnic and religious tensions.  His objective is to fracture Western cohesion.  Blank also noted that while strong transatlantic ties may threaten Putin, they actually work in the interests of Russia’s population and well-being as a nation.

Blank went on to assess the region’s military situation.  He emphasized the importance of enhanced cooperation between NATO and its Nordic partners, specifically Sweden and Finland, to fill in gaps in air and naval capabilities.  Increased defense spending, better freedom of movement for deploying troops, and joint training and exercises in the theater also play key roles in deterrence.  On a more concerning note, while there is an ongoing debate among allies on the role of nuclear weapons in the defense of Europe, Russia has multiple new nuclear procurement programs and has violated every arms treaty except New START with no repercussions.

Mr. Tiersky was the only U.S. official invited by the Belarusian government to take part in the observer events for the exercise.  The Belarusian Ministry of Defense held a briefing of the scenario and troops involved, characterizing it as completely defensive and reporting that all Russian forces and equipment would leave upon completion of the training.  Tiersky reported that the view given to the observers was too limited to tell the actual extent of the maneuvers.  Assessments are still in progress and there was no consensus yet on what really took place.  The NATO commander’s office issued preliminary findings that the exercise was bigger than reported beforehand but there were no reports of the extensive alarming pre-exercise speculation coming true.  Tiersky noted that Belarus should be commended for offering some degree of transparency, indicating possible signs of new openness to the West, or perhaps a statement of sovereignty.  It was not, however, the full level of transparency that Western analysts had hoped for. 

Tiersky identified a larger problem, in that Russia is failing to abide by multiple treaties.  They tend to avoid full reporting of their military training by conducting short-notice, so-called snap exercises, which don’t require the same level of reporting as scheduled exercises.  Helsinki Commission members need to revitalize their discussion on modernizing the Vienna Document to account for snap exercises and address the censure the Russian delegation faces on a regular basis. 

Ambassador Bajarunas shared his views on the allies’ tendency to overemphasize the military aspects of the threat from the Kremlin, recommending continued investment in defense against both conventional and unconventional tactics.  He expressed the need for U.S. presence in the region with both military and government representation to cement resilience against the asymmetric threat.  Internal reforms are also necessary in many countries to address media literacy, corruption, intelligence sharing and other weak points that Putin can exploit.

In the end, the panel agreed that the principles of the Helsinki Accords should be upheld and allies should be clear that NATO’s mission is purely defensive.  Regardless of the final assessments on the meaning of this Zapad, the transatlantic community needs to reinforce for future generations the importance of intellectual, moral, economic, military and political unity for the health and well-being of all nations.  In the U.S., the CEEC can continue to advocate for policy that promotes democratic ideals and security for central and eastern Europe and beyond.

The CEEC was established in 1994 to coordinate the efforts of ethnic organizations whose members continue to maintain strong cultural, economic, and political ties to the countries of central and eastern Europe.  It represents Americans of Armenian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak, and Ukrainian descent.  Its member organizations, including the Estonian American National Council, cooperate in calling attention to issues of mutual concern, especially regarding United States policy toward Central and East Europe.  Please see ceecoalition.us for more information.