Saturday
Mar042017

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.

Thursday
Feb162017

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

Wednesday
Jan182017

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

Tuesday
Dec132016

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

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

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