Wednesday
Nov022016

Russia’s Disinformation Campaign

Russian disinformation is a hot topic these days as more people, here in the U.S., in Europe, and presumably also in Russia, are becoming more aware and more discerning consumers of what is presented as news across the worldwide web and other media outlets.  The four articles outlined below provide snapshots of what has been observed in the Nordic countries, a Ukrainian-based view of the extent of propaganda infiltration in the EU, and a U.S. military assessment of the impact on strategy and policy decisions of deceptive information promulgated by Russia.  While there is no shortage of press on the topic, these articles stood out as relevant to the Baltic region and to the broader scope of the problem.

The first article from the New York Times (NYT), titled “A Powerful Russian Weapon:  The Spread of False Stories,” describes how the awareness of Russian disinformation has grown in Sweden and how their reaction to it has evolved.  There, and in Finland, the Kremlin’s main goal is to keep both countries out of NATO.  Much of the propaganda is aimed at discrediting NATO, and the Swedish public, which wasn’t accustomed to their news sources being unreliable, has been left confused and unsure what to believe.

The next article is also from the NYT and portrays a similar situation in Finland from the perspective of a respected journalist who is trying to fight back, only to find herself the brunt of vicious attacks by pro-Russian trolls.  The story also refers to the actions of Johan Bäckman, whose writings have shown pro-Putin and anti-Estonian bias.  He published a controversial book in 2008, harshly criticizing the Estonian government for its anti-Russian policies and actions during the 2007 Bronze Soldier protests.  The article can be found at: “Effort to Expose Russia's 'Troll Army' Draws Vicious Retaliation.”

StopFake is a fact-checking website launched in March 2014 by the journalist community in Ukraine.  Its mission is focused on information published about events in Ukraine, but the Kremlin’s widespread disinformation campaign throughout Europe has widened their area of interest to media across the continent.  Their article, “Commission: Russian propaganda has deeply penetrated EU countries,” paints a clear and disturbing picture of the Russian campaign’s far-reaching tentacles. 

Finally, Military.com’s article, “Russian Deception Delays Strategic Decisions, General Says,” shows how military planning can be delayed as planners sort through information to identify fact from deception.  Higher-level policy decisions are also influenced by Russia’s actions and motives.  No solution to the problem is offered, but experts agree that determining the depth and breadth of the problem and becoming more resilient to it are important first steps.

This brief overview by no means covers all aspects of Russia’s weaponization of information, which has a long history rooted in imperial Russia’s and the Soviet Union’s culture and methods.  Countering Putin’s information war has become a priority for NATO and U.S. leaders and we are likely to learn more about it as resources are applied to develop effective strategy for countermeasures.  In the meantime, the best we can do as consumers of the news and information presented by the sources we’re exposed to is to do diligent fact-checking of our own and be cautious about what we choose to believe.

- Karin Shuey

Wednesday
Oct192016

Estonian Experts Shine at Policy Forum

The Center for European Policy and Analysis (CEPA) held its annual transatlantic security forum in Washington on September 28-29.  Policy experts from 13 nations covered topics across the spectrum of national security concerns, including the Russian threat in the region, democracy and Western values, cyber and information warfare, and energy implications.  High-level speakers came from national ministries and parliaments, government and educational institutions, think tanks, and the news media.  The U.S., Hungary and Poland contributed the highest numbers of speakers with the remaining panelists fairly evenly spread, though one moderator quipped that Estonia had the highest representation per capita among participating experts.

The Estonian expertise was concentrated mainly in the disinformation and cyber warfare discussions.  Urve Eslas is a CEPA Adjunct Fellow specializing in Russian information warfare in Estonia, along with her work as an editor at Postimees and with other Estonian media outlets.  She was joined on the disinformation panel by Mikk Marran, Director General of Estonia’s Information Board.  The panel discussed the challenges of presenting objective truth to the public, leveraging news and social media to the fullest extent possible, and trying to play by the rules while the Kremlin is using the same conventions and tools of democracy, including freedom of speech, against the West.Information warfare experts Urve Eslas and Mikk Marran (second and fourth from left) discuss Russia’s disinformation campaign.

On the cyber warfare panel, Estonia was represented by Sven Sakkov, Director of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Center of Excellence in Tallinn.  He noted that in June 2016, NATO made the decision to include cyberspace as a fourth operational domain that actually transcends traditional land, sea and air warfare.  Cyber-attacks will now trigger an Article V response and require defensive mobilization on par with attacks in the other domains.  Different levels of hackers were discussed, citing nation-states, terrorist organizations and criminal enterprises as common culprits.  Each varies in its capabilities and intentions – for example a terrorist organization with hostile intent might not have sufficient capability to carry out its goals, but could use its resources to rent or buy the expertise and services it needs to launch an attack.  The lines can also be blurred, as when a nation offers safe-haven for criminal cyber activities.  Although media coverage of hacking events often depict attempts to investigate incidents as a game of whack-a-mole, NATO and other enforcement agencies aim to establish coordinated, effective defense and response procedures to address the cyber threat.

Estonian Chief of Defense Lieutenant General Riho Terras sat on the panel covering Russia’s threat to its neighbors.  The panel examined a broad range of challenges, perhaps largely rooted in the fading of the generations that experienced, or at least appreciate the aftermath of, World War II.  While Russia might have the capability to occupy the Baltic States, the intention is lacking, at least for now.  The Kremlin’s aim instead may be to establish the Balts as client states, still members of NATO and the EU but following Moscow’s policies, while using disinformation to normalize a message of eventual return to Russia’s fold.  Fortunately, Russia may have miscalculated NATO’s resolve.  Unanimous decisions in Wales and Warsaw, along with the actions NATO is implementing, demonstrate how seriously they take the threat.  While the U.S. quadrupled its European Reassurance Initiative funding for bilateral support in 2017, other allies are stepping up by increasing their defense budgets and deploying troops and equipment to the region.  Lt. Gen. Terras indicated that these steps are on the right track toward effective deterrence but maintained that the NATO label doesn’t make a strong enough statement without permanent U.S. presence.

Commander-in-Chief of Estonian Defence Forces Lt. Gen. Riho Terras (far right) discusses the threat Russia poses to its neighbors.

What happens next is difficult to predict.  There was criticism that the West’s responses have been reactive to Russia’s actions rather than proactively making aggressive choices more difficult on them.  While our side clearly believes in Article V, we should make sure Putin and Daesh do, as well.  Maintaining unity on the Ukraine sanctions is key to sending the message that the invasion was a strategic blunder and that there is a heavy cost for violating borders.  If the Kremlin sees their aggression as worthwhile with minimal penalty, they are more likely to continue the practice.  Perhaps above all, we need to recognize that Russia does not equal Putin.  The current situation is the fault of bad governments, not the Russian people, who want to live a normal life.  Working on ways to help them out of their country’s political quagmire might be the most important challenge of all.

CEPA is a non-profit policy institute dedicated to promoting political freedom, security and a strong economy in a Central and Eastern Europe with close ties to the U.S.  Their annual forum provides a unique platform for government leaders and community experts to engage on strategy and economic issues.  More information is available at www.cepa.org.

- Karin Shuey

 

Tuesday
Oct042016

CEEC Hosts Successful Policy Forum on Russia’s Information War

The Central and East European Coalition (CEEC; www.ceecoalition.us) hosted a timely and substantive event on Thursday, September 15, to discuss the topic “Russia’s Info War:  What is the Impact?”  A panel of four distinguished experts shared their views of and experiences with the issue.  Panel members were David Ensor, former Voice of America Director; Jeffrey Gedmin, former director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL); Liz Wahl, former correspondent for RT America; and Marius Laurinavicius, Hudson Institute Baltic-American Freedom Foundation Fellow. The panel was moderated by Mamuka Tsereteli of the Georgian Association in the U.S.A. and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Discussion of the problem revolved around several themes, including declining journalistic standards, our flawed understanding of Russia’s strategic goals, and lack of clarity on U.S. goals.  The speakers noted that we are living in a post-factual world where we’re becoming numb to shock value.  The rules of journalism and regard for truth that guided the news media in the past are losing significance while public trust of the media and discrimination regarding reliable sources are also fading. 

On the Kremlin’s goals, it was noted that propaganda has always been a part of Russian and Soviet military doctrine.  Russia calls its latest arsenal new generation warfare, fighting a total war on numerous fronts, to include political, economic, energy, cyber and information, in addition to more conventional military operations.  The speakers saw a gap in U.S. policy that doesn’t fully recognize the broad extent of Putin’s aggression or his efforts to divide and weaken Europe and minimize or eliminate U.S. influence in the region. 

Another U.S. shortcoming was identified as our loss of what we stand for.  Putin may be playing a weak hand, but he’s finding his way because we’ve lost ours.  One aspect of this is our still treating as valid agreements that Russia broke long ago.  We need to clarify our foreign policy goals and employ the right tools, rooted in accurate, reliable info.  The recent trend in rising relativism is diluting our values and objectivity. 

The event concluded with proposed steps for moving forward.  Renewed confidence in the media and making facts matter again, among the producers of the news and consumers, was a top concern.  One speaker observed that Putin must know Russia’s population is interested in the truth; otherwise he wouldn’t expend so much effort on containing and oppressing it.  There’s a large audience for RFE/RL and local media outlets to use the internet to present objective truth in an effort to counteract the Kremlin’s control over state media.   While there was consensus that recovering objectivity and values could be a long-term battle, on a more positive note, Western governments are growing more aware of the problems and working on effective ways to address them.

The CEEC 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.  It represents Americans of Armenian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak, and Ukrainian descent.  Its member organizations cooperate in calling attention to issues of mutual concern, especially as regards United States policy toward Central and East Europe. Panelists from left: Marius Laurinavicius, Jeffrey Gedmin, Mamuka Tsereteli, David Ensor, Liz Wahl.

Wednesday
Sep282016

JBANC Meets with the Baltic Embassies

The Latvian embassy hosted the Baltic ambassadors and Baltic American community representatives for the third quarterly JBANC-Baltic embassies meeting in September 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). 

Russia’s disinformation campaign was an important subject of discussion.  While it has been ongoing since the Baltics gained independence, participants noted that it has become more aggressive and has spread throughout Europe and to the U.S.  The problem remains how to address it.  Suggestions included more U.S. participation in NATO’s Strategic Communications Center of Excellence in Riga and continuing efforts by the Baltic governments to provide transparent alternative broadcasting options to their populations. 

This fall’s presidential elections in all three countries, along with the U.S. elections, were also discussed.  While definitive results were not yet available, the election period and its aftermath were recognized as a time of uncertainty when the Kremlin might test transatlantic unity.  The Baltic Ambassadors acknowledged that the Warsaw summit confirmed solid support for the region.  Since NATO’s forward presence will not be fully in place by the U.S. inauguration, the situation calls for understanding among the allies that this is a soft period.  Passage of the U.S. defense budget, which includes European Reassurance Initiative funding, is a high priority.  Advocating for permanent presence of U.S. troops on Baltic soil will also become a major focus with the next administration.

The community leaders presented their news and events.  EANC’s highlights included the November meeting, awards gala, and public forum; the upcoming publication of Estonians in America; and activities in Washington.  JBANC reported on the work they have been doing on the Hill.  JBANC requested information on upcoming Congressional delegations to the Baltics to facilitate follow-up meetings with those offices and issuance of invitations to join the Senate Baltic Freedom Caucus and House Baltic Caucus. Ambassadors and representatives from Baltic-American organizations discuss current events. Photo courtesy of JBANC.

Wednesday
Sep282016

EANC Meets with Presidential Candidate Evan McMullin

Estonian American National Council representatives joined Central and East European colleagues for a meeting with Independent candidate Evan McMullin on Wednesday, September 7th.  This was the second in a series of meetings the Central and East European Coalition (CEEC) has been pursuing with the campaigns of presidential candidates from all parties.  We met with Clinton campaign advisor Madeleine Albright in June and have made contact with officials from Donald Trump’s staff.CEEC members discussing policy. Clockwise from left: Ukraine representative Michael Sawkiw; JBANC intern Alex Blums; Karin Shuey, EANC; Latvian rep Ausma Tomsevics; JBANC Director Karl Altau; candidate Evan McMullin; McMullin advisor David Adesnik. Photo courtesy of CEEC.

McMullin announced his candidacy in early August.  He is now on the ballot in ten states and is a registered write-in in ten more.  He plans to be in one category or the other in nearly every state by election day.  His background includes work with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the Central Intelligence Agency and Goldman Sachs.  Most recently, he spent two years on Capitol Hill as a senior adviser on national security issues for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and as chief policy director of the House Republican Conference.  He resigned from this position shortly before entering the presidential race. 

Much of our conversation centered around Russian aggression and U.S. leadership.  McMullin expressed strong support for maintaining relationships with European allies and robust U.S. leadership in the region and globally.  He shared his concern for Russia’s destabilizing behavior in Ukraine and beyond, stating that U.S. weakness has invited Russian aggression into Europe and the U.S.  He is in favor of stronger sanctions on Russia and setting Georgia and Ukraine on the path to NATO membership.  Calling Russia the most serious adversary to global security, McMullin sees a need for better communication to the public of the threat that Russia poses and considers Central and Eastern European-American communities as valuable voices for sharing this message.

McMullin criticized the U.S. for pulling back from its leadership role.  Our willingness to cooperate with leaders who violate our values has compromised our standing.  He called for a renewed demonstration of U.S. strengths by propagating abroad our commitment to freedom, human rights and free press. 

McMullin also expressed support for positive immigration reform, strengthening trade agreements, and helping Europe diversify its energy supplies.  He believes partnerships develop and strengthen through large trading networks, efficiently generating wealth for all parties.

At the end of the meeting, McMullin informed us he was working on a foreign policy speech that he would deliver soon.  Topics would include his priorities for the Central and East European region and emphasizing as imperative the value of U.S. leadership. 

- Karin Shuey

 

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