Senate Committee Issues Major Report on Russia’s Assault on Democracy

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) in January released a comprehensive report on Russian President Putin’s asymmetric assault on Western democracy.  The report was commissioned by then-ranking member Senator Ben Cardin.  The press release for the report, including links to the full 206-page study, is available at the SFRC website under Ranking Member’s Press for January 10, 2018.  According to the press release, the document “comes one year after Senator Cardin introduced the Counteracting Russian Hostilities Act of 2017, which served as the basis for the sanctions package signed into law last August, and makes a series of recommendations to adequately bolster U.S. and European defenses and counter the growing Kremlin threat to democratic institutions.”

The report includes a section dedicated to the Baltic states (starting on page 100) that outlines several aspects of the problem in the region, such as the history of Russian government influence operations, vulnerabilities, organizations carrying out the operations, and efforts to counter the Kremlin’s actions.  The study identifies five Russian objectives that focus on:  ethnic division of the populations to control and manipulate their Russian minorities; creating mistrust toward the governments of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; undermining Western democratic values and instead promoting populism and radicalism; weakening Western alliances like NATO and the EU; and marginalizing the nations’ cultures and historical achievements so that the population will be less inclined to come to their governments’ defense.SFRC report cover

All three nations have taken action against state-sponsored Russian propaganda outlets by creating media literacy through education programs and establishing a center for professional Russian-language journalism, among other measures.  In Estonia, the government has instituted three Russian-language television stations that are watched by about 20 percent of the Russian minority population.  Even private citizens are organizing to expose disinformation in social media.

The study also credits the three nations’ intelligence services for their efforts to expose propaganda and influence networks.  Estonia’s Internal Security Service (Kaitsepolitsei or Kapo), along with its counterparts in Latvia and Lithuania, publishes annual reports of Russian intelligence activities and corresponding government responses.  The Eston Kohver case is cited as perhaps the most egregious incident in recent years.  The Estonian government holds a “zero-tolerance” policy toward illegal Russian intelligence activities and prosecutes caught operatives to the maximum extent of the law.  Their annual reporting also publicizes names of people and organizations who are suspected of working with Russian intelligence services.  Corruption, criminal circles, and areas such as the energy sector, where businesses are trying to influence state policy, are other major fields of Kapo’s concern.

The committee concluded their report with three main lessons learned.  They found that publicly reporting details of Russian intelligence activities is effective, strong cyber defenses are essential, and exposure to Western culture through exchanges and programs like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VOA) increases resilience.  To that end, RFE/RL-led program Current Time, in cooperation with VOA, was launched last year and is making great strides in providing balanced, spin-free Russian language news coverage over multiple platforms in Russia and nearly 30 other countries, including the Baltics.  Please see the RFE/RL press release from February 7th for details.

The report clearly highlights that Putin’s campaign against the West is relentless and will continue to evolve, and that it can be deterred.  Supporting U.S. programs to counter its effects and build resilience, at home and in unison with our European allies, is a major focus of EANC’s advocacy this year.  We will continue to follow the issue and welcome our community’s support in reaching out to Members of Congress to call for policy and action in neutralizing the Kremlin’s efforts to undermine democracy in our homeland.


EANC Meets with State Department

Estonian American National Council (EANC) representatives recently joined Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) colleagues for a briefing from the Department of State (DoS) Baltic team.  The Director of Nordic and Baltic Affairs and desk officers for Latvia and Lithuania shared their insights on policy and current and upcoming events relevant to U.S.-Baltic relationships.  Representatives from the Global Engagement Center (GEC) and Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (BECA) were also present to brief us on their programs.

The meeting started by recognizing the centennial celebrations the nations are holding throughout 2018.  Each embassy has a long slate of events across the U.S. that State is facilitating to ensure their success.  The Department is also creating a pictorial display for one of their main lobbies showing the evolution of U.S.-Baltic relations over the years, highlighting significant events such as the 1940 Welles Declaration that established U.S. refusal to recognize Soviet annexation of the nations, and the U.S.-Baltic Charter of 1998 supporting the nations’ full integration into European and transatlantic structures and cooperation.

U.S. Diplomacy Center

U.S. Diplomacy Center, the planned location for the display depicting the history of U.S.-Baltic relations.  (Source:

The display will coincide with a possible Baltic summit in the works for this spring in Washington with the three Baltic presidents.  The event will likely include two half-day programs.  The White House portion will not be open to the public while the second program, featuring U.S.-Baltic business opportunities, will encourage public interaction.  The embassies are coordinating with the Department of Commerce, private entities, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to highlight the success of Baltic business in the U.S.

The GEC representative described GEC’s work to counter disinformation by engaging at local levels with governments, NGOs, schools, social and civic leaders and others.  Having learned that issuing active rebuttals to false messages is ineffective, they have shifted their focus to helping their partners establish credibility through positive messaging and building resiliency.   In the Baltic countries, they are working with local organizations and agencies to identify the key goals of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns, create media literacy among audiences, and facilitate information sharing among the countries to improve their effectiveness against the information threat.

The discussion with the BECA representatives centered around proposals to reduce the number of J-1 visas, which allow foreign citizens to come to the U.S. as students, au pairs, participants in exchange programs, short-term workers and in other temporary capacities.   Participants emphasized the importance, both to the Baltics and to the U.S. Baltic communities, of educational opportunities, internships, exchanges, and the like, that require the J-1 visa. They recommended increasing, rather than decreasing, the number of visas available.

The meeting closed out with a review of upcoming events and agreement to mutually support each other wherever possible.  All in attendance clearly shared appreciation for the milestone this year marks for Baltic independence will continue work to strengthen U.S.-Baltic relations.


U.S. Approves Sale of 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 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.

OSCE SMM monitoring weaponry Ukraine

OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) monitoring the movement of heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine.  Source:  OSCE SMM to Ukraine

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 necessarily 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.


Central and East European Coalition Questions Controversial Concert

Last month, an event titled “A Concert for Unity” was held at the Washington National Cathedral.  It was billed as an invitation-only affair presented in cooperation with the Embassy of the Russian Federation.  The concert announcement listed sponsors including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, among other, less prominent non-profit organizations whose mission statements assert support for the arts, Russian culture, democracy and/or religious freedom.  The full announcement is available at wilsoncenter.orgNational Cathedral

The concert caught the attention of the Central and East European Coalition (CEEC) due to the controversial background of the artists listed.  Two of the featured performers are known agents of Putin’s campaign of economic and cultural influence to promote Putin’s Russia and normalize relations with the Kremlin.  Conductor Valeri Gergiev and pianist Denis Matsuev are both on record endorsing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and occupation of Crimea, and performed in Syria while Russian warplanes were bombing Aleppo. Gergiev also performed in Georgia days after the 2008 Russian invasion, effectively endorsing ethnic cleansing of Georgians.

The CEEC considered the event an affront to the values of its member organizations and was surprised that the Kennan Institute and Kennedy Center would lend their names in support.  Washington Post reporting indicated that the event was funded by a DC socialite who has a history of promoting cultural understanding between the U.S. and Russia, and that the Kennedy Center supported the event in name only.  Even so, the CEEC has pursued the matter further by writing to three institutions – the Kennan Institute, the Kennedy Center and the National Cathedral – expressing dismay and requesting more information from the leader of each regarding their rationale for backing the event.

While the CEEC understands that the aim of the event may have been to keep politics and cultural pursuits separate, this message would have been more effective if the event’s benefactor and featured artists didn’t have clear political ties. These artists and the source of the event’s funding certainly did according to the Washington Post article linked above.

The CEEC hopes that the institutions in question will respond to its letters and will publish any pertinent updates as they are received.  The organization 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 for more information.


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.

HBC20 parl group - by photog

Distinguished guests from left:  Emanuelis Zingeris, John Shimkus, Solvita Āboltiņa, Marko Mihkelson, Andy Barr, Karl Altau.  Photo by Peteris Alunan.

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.

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Estonian Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Marko Mihkelson addressing the gathering.

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 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.


DC Spotlight on Estonia and the Baltic Region

Several events this fall highlighted the interest shown among multiple Washington circles in matters concerning Estonia and the Baltics.  Visiting officials included Estonian ministers, parliamentarians, and cyber security experts, while think tanks hosted Baltic and Scandinavian panels, and members of Congress met with their Baltic counterparts to discuss security issues in the region.

CSIS cyber panel
CSIS panelists (from left) Marina Kaljurand, Merle Maigre, Juhan Lepassaar and Tanel Sepp discuss strategies for securing cyberspace.

In October, the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC) and the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) held discussions centered around Russian influence in the Baltic region and how the West should respond.  Russia’s explicit agenda to change the European security order from rules-based to interest- based was noted.  Strong democratic institutions don’t suit Russia’s interests, so the Kremlin is actively working to undermine them in the Baltic nations and elsewhere.  NATO’s enhanced forward presence in the region has bolstered overall security while Russia has overstretched its military capabilities, but information warfare remains a threat that Western powers have not yet addressed effectively.  Russia especially excels at using high-quality entertainment to subtly propagate its agenda in Russian-speaking communities, a capability not fully recognized or understood in the West.  Recommendations included being more proactive in the information space, framing requests for U.S. support in terms of U.S. national interests, and putting more focus on deterrence in the air and sea domains.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted panels to review the progress Estonia has made in cyber security since the first attacks against its government in 2007.  Former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves shared his remarks by video while former foreign minister Marina Kaljurand and other distinguished experts held lively discussions on their roles in analyzing and responding to the attacks, along with lessons learned and developing strategies for deterrence, protection against future attacks and fostering stability in cyberspace.  The full video of the event is available on the CSIS website,, under Events > Past Events > November 6, 2017.

Later in November, Estonian Interior Minister Andres Anvelt was in Washington to attend the EU-U.S. Justice and Home Affairs Ministerial meeting.  The Atlantic Council also hosted a roundtable discussion that included several senior current and former State Department officials, and featured Anvelt’s views on countering Russian disinformation.  The take-aways from the meeting stressed the importance of exposing lies in the media, promoting open and transparent governance, and upholding the principles of freedom and democratic values.

Est emb parl mtg

From left:   MP Anneli Ott, EANC’s Karin Shuey, EANC President Marju Rink-Abel, MP Hannes Hanso, MP Ants Laaneots and MP Madis Milling met at the Estonian embassy to talk about relations between Estonia and the diaspora in the U.S. 

Finally, members of the Estonian parliament (MPs) were in DC to meet with counterparts in the Senate and House Armed Services, Appropriations, and other committees.  They also made time to sit down with EANC President Marju Rink-Abel and Washington, DC Director Karin Shuey, along with officials from the Estonian embassy.  Topics discussed included U.S. and Estonian security policy, the growing U.S. government interest in Estonia, Estonian government relations with the diaspora community, and areas for future cooperation.

EANC very much values its good relationship with the embassy and the resulting opportunities to meet with Estonian officials when they visit Washington.  We will remain engaged in all levels of the DC foreign policy community and keep our constituents informed on policy and events.  Please also make regular visits to our website at to stay current on news of interest to the Estonian American community.


EANC Hosts Lively Public Forum in Florida

In conjunction with its annual meeting, the Estonian American National Council held a well-attended public forum in St. Petersburg, Florida on 11-12 November. The program included panel discussions and a keynote address by Estonian Ambassador Lauri Lepik.  The interactive panels addressed the topics of advocacy in Washington, Estonian entrepreneurship in Florida, and ties between Estonia and the Estonian diaspora.

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EANC members attending the event 

The panelists for the first discussion were EANC president Marju Rink-Abel, EANC Washington, DC Director Karin Shuey, and Michael Sawkiw, Executive Vice President of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.  Ms. Rink-Abel started with a review of Estonian organizations in the U.S., their missions and responsibilities, how they interact, and EANC’s role relative to the other groups.  Ms. Shuey gave an overview of the Joint Baltic American National Committee’s (JBANC) work in Washington.  The main focus has been support for NATO, countering disinformation, and enforcing sanctions on Russia. She stressed the importance of working with other diaspora communities that share interest in the same issues so that our voices gain strength and effectiveness in numbers.  Mr. Sawkiw finished the discussion on an inspiring note, reminding us that all politics is local, in that we need to keep our legislators engaged in the issues, and that it’s in U.S. national security interests to support the security and stability of the central and east European region, with Ukraine now on the front lines of defense.

The second panel featured four Estonian-American business owners living in Florida, who shared their personal stories that led them to entrepreneurship.  Sigrid Bratic established a Greek restaurant in 2004 that has since grown into a franchise with 24 locations.  Merle Liivand told her story of representing Estonia as a professional competitive swimmer and building on her experiences to welcome others into the sport through coaching, products, and consulting.  Terje Van Schaik developed a U.S.-based green cleaning products company in 2006 from the company her husband established in Tallinn several years before.  Kaie Põhi Latterner started her systems integration consulting business in the retail sector in 1984 after her own career in retail.  She is also currently a candidate to be Honorary Consul for central Florida and hopes to eventually support entrepreneurs and start-up companies in Estonia. The experiences related by the four women brought forth many questions and highlighted the need for an Estonian American business owners network.

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Estonian Ambassador to the U.S. Lauri Lepik

The third panel looked at Estonia and its official connections with Estonians abroad.  Canadian-Estonian activist Marcus Kolga began by comparing the Estonian government’s diaspora initiatives with its neighbors’, pointing out that Latvia’s and Lithuania’s governments have point people who remain engaged with their diaspora communities and suggesting that we encourage Estonia to do the same.  Ms. Rink-Abel reminded us that the Estonian World Council had jointly funded such a position with the Estonian Ministry of Population in the past, but with the Ministry’s dissolution the position was moved and became less effective.  Renee Meriste, president of the Estonian Society of Los Angeles and host of this year’s successful West Coast Estonian Days, noted that there’s little communication between the Estonian government and organizations on the West Coast.   Debate continued on questions such as which side would benefit more from a stronger government-diaspora relationship, what our communities’ goals would be in seeking more representation, how to reconcile the differences among the interests of Estonians in other countries, and whether the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Parliament is the more appropriate entity to work with.  The discussion concluded that to make progress on this issue, we need clear goals and a detailed, long-term plan  in order to raise awareness in the Estonian government of the benefits of a strengthened relationship with Estonian communities abroad.

Ambassador Lepik’s keynote address at dinner also touched on the relationship between Estonia and Estonians abroad, saying that the government has always endorsed diaspora engagement.  He cited his top priority as ambassador as establishing a permanent U.S. troop presence in Estonia, not because Estonia faces a serious military threat but because it would send the clearest message possible that the U.S. stands ready to defend Estonia as a frontier nation of NATO and Europe.  His other priorities include developing a stronger business and trade relationship with the U.S. and promoting events in the U.S. that celebrate Estonia’s centennial next year.  More information on those events can be found at the EV100 website,

The weekend was a positive step in EANC’s initiative to engage with communities throughout the U.S.  EANC’s Florida members were gracious hosts and made all who traveled to the event feel welcome.  The panelists evoked a number of questions and much debate, and their  insights and experiences sent participants home with much to consider in how they can support EANC’s mission.  Though options for the next meeting are still under review, the Council looks forward to visiting new communities in the coming years.