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.
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.
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 cepa.org.