Advocacy

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 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.

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Advocacy

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.

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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, www.csis.org, 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.

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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 estosite.org to stay current on news of interest to the Estonian American community.

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Advocacy

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, www.ev100.ee.

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.

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Advocacy

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.

Balt embs table

From right: EANC board members Lya Karm and Marju Rink-Abel, Estonian Ambassador Lauri Lepik, Estonian Political Affairs Secretary Kristjan Kuurme, Lithuanian representatives Tomas Sadauskas and Henry Gaidis, and EANC Washington, DC Director Karin Shuey discuss U.S.-Baltic relations.  (Photo credit:  Raits Eglitis)

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.

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A strong turnout of Baltic Embassy and Baltic-American community representatives.  (Photo credit:  Raits Eglitis)

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.

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Advocacy

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.

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

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EANC Washington, DC Director Karin Shuey presents a token of appreciation on behalf of the CEEC to Ambassador Volker.  Photo courtesy of JBANC.

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.

CEEC panel 2017

Panel line-up from right:  Ambassador Volker, Ambassador Bajarunas, Dr. Blank, Mr. Tiersky, and moderator Dr. Tsereteli.

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.

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Advocacy

Estonian Experts Weigh in on Transatlantic Policy

Two major think tank events in Washington recently featured Estonian speakers on topics including reforming NATO for the 21st century, security challenges of the information age, defending NATO’s frontiers, and state sponsors of disinformation.  The Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) held its annual two-day conference on transatlantic security September 21-22, where Estonian Defense Minister Jüri Luik, Defense League commander Major General Meelis Kiili, and strategic communications expert Urve Eslas were among the top-level lineup of presenters and panelists.  The following week, the Atlantic Council held the first transatlantic forum on strategic communications to examine the influence of agents of destabilizing disinformation.  Former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves was a major contributor to that discussion.

At the CEPA forum, Minister Luik tackled what he considered the misconception that the Baltics are indefensible.  He deemed Estonia and its allies capable of creating an effective deterrent to conventional attack.  He cited the need for all NATO allies to overcome their political hurdles and meet or exceed the 2% benchmark for defense spending to further bolster the alliance’s deterrent posture.  He also stressed the role of the U.S. in coordination with the EU,

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Defense Minister Jüri Luik speaking at CEPA Forum 2017 (Photo courtesy of CEPA)

stating that, “nothing can replace the U.S. … as the guarantor of security in Europe.”  He expressed high regard for the robust signals of support the U.S. has consistently sent on political and practical levels, calling out European Deterrence Initiative funding as a strong symbol of U.S. commitment to European security.

General Kiili shared his thoughts based on Estonia’s experience under 50 years of Kremlin-led Soviet occupation and the psychological aspects of Russia’s multi-layered strategies.  He called the current state of affairs a clash between democratic order and oligarchic order, and named education on the Kremlin’s efforts to establish moral equivalency between their actions and those of the West as the highest priority for rendering them ineffective.  He characterized Estonia’s Defense League as an opportunity for every citizen to exercise their obligation and right to participate in the defense of their country.

Ms. Eslas explained how information attacks have been a part of digital warfare since 2015 and are aimed at damaging the three key pillars of liberal democracy, namely freedom of speech, free and fair elections, and rule of law.  One focus of countermeasures should be to strengthen those pillars.  She cited evidence of Internet bots (software applications that run repetitive tasks, like retweeting targeted messages) and their use in propagating disinformation, and made the point that limiting bots does not amount to restricting free speech for actual people.  She then outlined the challenge of overcoming the Kremlin’s propaganda campaign.  If Russian policy assumes that NATO is a threat and that all media is propaganda, then any attempt to counter those assumptions becomes fodder for more propaganda and justifies the false narratives.  We can understand disinformation in three parts:  sender, receiver and message.  While much is known about the senders and the messages, we need better understanding of the receivers in order to neutralize propaganda’s effectiveness.

The Atlantic Council event further highlighted the growing preponderance of weaponized fake news, politicized corruption, digital magnification of disinformation, and unattributed advertisements.  It also pointed out that the West has created the conditions for these tactics to thrive by permitting the creation of anonymous shell corporations for money laundering, allowing special interests to operate without

AC STRATCOM Ilves photo

Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (center) discusses Russian disinformation tactics, joined by Edward Lucas (left) and Peter Pomerantsev.

transparency, and holding online advertising to lesser standards than advertising in conventional media.  Sunlight and transparency were identified as the enemies of these practices and there was consensus that legislation requiring greater transparency is needed in all aspects of the problem.

President Ilves offered his observations on the Kremlin’s strategies.  He cited as his main concerns:  doxing (the practice of publishing private information on individuals or organizations, typically with malicious intent), Twitterbots magnifying false stories (as mentioned above), psychological manipulation, non-attributed ads on social media, and using metadata to target ads to sway opinion.  He noted that social media platforms have become more popular sources of news than traditional outlets, which adds to our vulnerability.  There has been a noticeable shift since 2014 – earlier, fake news was more easily identified and refuted or ignored by trusted news sources.  In recent years, even reliable outlets and print media publishers have started giving more attention to disinformation in the name of balanced reporting, while in fact they are actually skewing the picture in the favor of fake news.  When even outrageous lies get equal time with fact-based reporting, many consumers of the information draw the false conclusion that the truth is somewhere in the middle instead of accepting the factual reports.

President Ilves also brought up the Gerasimov doctrine – a 2013 article by Russia’s chief of the General Staff at the time that outlined the use of non-military tactics not just to augment the traditional tools of war, but as the preferred means to win the war.  Ilves warned against the danger of focusing too much on just fake news because this doctrine includes a broad spectrum of ways to manipulate and sow discord.  There is no reciprocal response.  Western nations can limit visas, enact laws against money laundering, investigate suspicious deaths, and watch and document how these tools are used but no collective defense has yet been developed.

The presence of Estonian representatives at both of these events shows that the tiny nation’s expertise is highly valued in NATO and the transatlantic partnership.  Estonia’s unique historical experience with threats from the east has ingrained in its population a deep understanding that its NATO and EU allies lack.  It was clear among both audiences and the other speakers that the Estonians’ voices on these matters were respected, and that they will be invited back on a regular basis as understanding of the threat from the Kremlin evolves.

For summaries and video of the CEPA and Atlantic Council events, please see www.cepaforum.org and www.atlanticcouncil.org/events/webcasts/stratcom-dc.  For more information on the Gerasimov doctrine, please look for Molly McKew’s Politico article on the topic.

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A Perspective on Zapad 2017

As Russia’s quadrennial military exercise Zapad gets underway, there’s no shortage of analysis and commentary on what to expect.  Scheduled to start on September 14th and run for seven days, Zapad 2017 has been a hot topic among think tanks, NGOs, Russia experts, military experts, and other interested parties for the last several months.  The most comprehensive source of information may be the Center for European Policy Analysis and its dedicated website, Road to Zapad 2017 (infowar.cepa.org/the-road-to-zapad-2017).  That said, countless other sources, including the Atlantic Council, Baltic Times, Military Times, National Interest, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL, and German Marshall Fund, have contributed to varying degrees on the topic.

The main question posed in the coverage has been about whether or not the West should be worried.  Although fictitious adversarial states were created for the exercise, the scenario has been reported as a simulation of a NATO attack on Belarus, with Russia coming to its neighbor’s aid in defending the attack.  There is general consensus that the number of troops Russia is sending exceeds that of past Zapads and that Russia is not meeting the reporting requirements laid out in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Vienna Document.  Russia and Belarus have put the number at less than 13,000 – the level at which the Vienna Document mandates OSCE inspections –  while previous exercises have approached the 100,000-troop mark.

The worst-case outcome would be Russia’s use of the exercise as a cover for stationing permanent troops or equipment in Belarus, an intention they have demonstrated in past large-scale exercises, as in Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008.  Previous Zapad exercises have simulated invasion of the Baltic states, a nuclear strike on Warsaw, and bombing runs against Sweden, but did not end in violation of any nation’s sovereignty.  While Belarus has invited military observers from seven countries – Ukraine, Poland, Sweden, Norway and the three Baltic nations – to take part in specific visitors’ days, this, too falls short of OSCE transparency measures.

Reuters Zapad graphic

Graphic of Russian and Belarusian participation as reported by the Russian Ministry of Defense.  Source: Reuters.

Russia is downplaying the scale of Zapad, accusing the West of overreacting and risking stability in Europe with its concurrent buildup of NATO forces in the region.  They characterize the event as practicing strictly defensive maneuvers and that they pose a threat to no one.  Meanwhile, educated viewpoints in the West criticize the scenario as completely unrealistic and place responsibility for any instability along Russia’s borders squarely in the hands of the Kremlin.

The Estonian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has indicated distrust of the numbers reported by Moscow based on past experience with other Russian exercises and has been closely monitoring preparations for this one.  According to a news article on the MoD website, Minister Jüri Luik is “…hoping to see greater transparency and observance of international agreements both prior to and during the exercise” (see kaitseministeerium.ee/en/news for 28.08.2017).  Estonian representatives will take part in the observer program 16-20 September and Estonia’s defense attaché will attend a program for all defense attachés accredited to Moscow at the Luga training ground, about 90 miles south of St. Petersburg, 18-19 September.

An interested party could spend days trying to digest all the information available on different aspects of Zapad 2017.  Until the exercise is finished and its aftermath is clear later in September, much of what has been written so far will remain speculation.  While there are indications that troop movements and naval deployments exceed what Russia and Belarus have reported, and it seems likely that far more than 13,000 soldiers will be mobilized, the endgame will only be revealed once the dust settles.  Analysis and commentary at that point will undoubtedly be much more consequential.

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