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.


EANC Hosts Successful Day of Policy and Cultural Discussions

On the eve of November’s elections, the Estonian American National Council held its annual meeting and gala in San Francisco on November 4-5 in conjunction with a full-day program of high-level speakers and panel discussions.  Special guests included Ambassadors James Melville, Eerik Marmei and Kurt Volker.  Although the event occurred pre-election, Ambassador Melville’s remarks and the afternoon panel on transatlantic security and U.S.-Estonian relations offered insights that carry over into the new administration’s transition period.


Ambassador James Melville

As plenary speaker, Ambassador Melville highlighted the defining aspects of U.S.-Estonian relations for the next decade.   He sees Estonia as a capable partner and ally to the U.S., both bilaterally and multilaterally through NATO, the EU and other international organizations.  He called Estonia “…as solid a partner and ally as we have.  Estonia’s interests and values line up with ours exceedingly well.”  He went on to identify security as Estonia’s dominant issue for the foreseeable future, thanks to an aggressive and unpredictable Russia.  He affirmed the U.S. and NATO commitment to defend every ally’s security and territorial integrity, stating that with Estonia on the front line of the West’s struggle with Russia, “[a]ny wavering or destabilization would have ripple effects that would directly threaten U.S. interests and prosperity.”  Finally, he commended Estonia’s success in the digital economy through its capacity to adapt and innovate.  He ended his remarks by acknowledging that the Estonian-American community has a continuing role in supporting Estonia through its external and internal challenges.  Ambassador Melville’s full remarks are available at the U.S. Embassy Tallinn website under About Us > Ambassador > Ambassador Speeches.

The afternoon panel featured experts on various aspects of transatlantic relations, Russia’s recent behavior, and advocacy in Washington.  Estonian Ambassador to the U.S. Eerik Marmei opened the discussion with an overview of Estonia in NATO and U.S.-Estonian relations.  He observed that Obama’s policies regarding NATO’s eastern flank have been strong and specific.  Obama’s European Reassurance Initiative funding and bilateral defense cooperation programs have allowed Estonia to purchase 80 Javelin missile launchers, giving Estonia the second largest Javelin inventory in Europe.  Marmei also discussed Russia’s upcoming strategic-level ZAPAD 2017 exercise.  While available details for the exercise are sparse, he expects it may include new surprises for Russia’s western neighbors.  The Baltics have sometimes been considered as “NATO’s soft underbelly” and the best place to simulate a test of NATO’s resolve.  He would therefore advise our president-elect to send a message of solidarity with U.S. allies and to work within NATO to enhance policies for responding to hybrid interventions.


Panelists from left:  Marcus Kolga, Ambassador Eerik Marmei, moderator Karin Shuey, Ambassador Kurt Volker, Karl Altau

Kurt Volker, former U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO and expert on transatlantic relations, shared his perspective on challenges for the next administration.  He opened by pointing out that the “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan includes showing U.S. strength as a force to be reckoned with.  Messages claiming that NATO should back off, Europe is weak and divided, and Russia is dangerous amount to psychological strategy and tactics intended to sow doubt.  A good response is to reaffirm NATO’s Article 5 with initiatives like Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltics and Poland.  Demonstrating the will and capability to respond to Putin’s posturing will cause him to probe elsewhere.  However,  rather than responding reactively to Russia’s behavior, the U.S. needs to develop a coherent strategy.  Volker was disappointed by Trump’s campaign statements to “just get along” or “cut a deal with Putin” and Gingrich’s reference to Estonia as a suburb of St. Petersburg.  He believes that Trump’s policy won’t follow the rhetoric and that Russia doesn’t want a strategic partnership with us, even if they seem encouraged by Trump’s election.  Ending on a brighter note, Volker reminded us that the  Senate can exercise its power to check any reckless policy proposals from the White House.  In addition, we have a strong, educated, capable military and a deep foreign policy bench that respects our democratic values.

The next speaker was Marcus Kolga, expert on the media, communications and disinformation.  Mr. Kolga painted a sobering picture of the Kremlin’s extensive foreign and domestic disinformation campaigns.  Inside Russia, Putin has been dismantling independent media, forcing media owners into exile and merging their assets into the state-owned media monolith, effectively giving him complete control of all messages transmitted to the public.  In the West, Putin takes advantage of our freedom of speech and the media to broadcast anti-Western rhetoric.  Kolga cited the primary objective of these campaigns as the restoration of the Soviet empire and Russia’s return to superpower status.  To this end, the Kremlin has four main goals.  The first is to destabilize existing international alliances and institutions, like the EU and NATO, and present Russia’s illiberal and regressive Eurasian Union as an alternative.   Second is to polarize western societies and turn them against themselves – much like we’re seeing in the United States today.  Third, they seek to undermine western institutions and democracy and erode the confidence we have in our leaders.  Finally, they are sowing mass confusion and doubt in order to discredit opponents both domestic and foreign.  He offered several examples from recent history, as well as a very personal story of his own experience as a target of the Kremlin’s tactics.

Karl Altau of the Joint Baltic American National Committee rounded out the discussion with his recommendations for legislation we can support to send our message to the new President and Congress.  He highlighted several initiatives working through the approval process on defense funding, disinformation, Ukraine, and human rights protection.  Of particular note is the European Reassurance Initiative, which is part of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.  It allocates $3.4 billion in support for our European allies to upgrade their NATO interoperability, deterrence and self-defense capabilities.  Estonia has made good use of the portions of this funding it has received in previous years.  On Ukraine, JBANC has been advocating for support of the STAND for Ukraine Act , non-recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and aid for offensive weapons.  Bills to address propaganda and disinformation are in process in both chambers (S.2392 and H.R.5181), while the Global Magnitsky Act, increasing membership of the Senate Baltic Freedom and House Baltic Caucuses, and declaring an official Black Ribbon Day remain priorities, as well.

Ambassador Melville in his closing impressions echoed the speakers and reminded us that fundamental national interests don’t change.  He has been encouraged by the recent uptick in congressional interest in the Baltic region and cited recent and upcoming productive delegation visits.  He added that many problems have recognized and diagnosed, which is halfway to fixing them.  Now the U.S. needs to ensure that resources align with priorities to make those fixes.

Estonian-American constituents can help by voicing support on these issues to their Congressional representatives and by taking EANC’s survey at (also linked on the EANC homepage under EANC News) to indicate interest in getting involved.  EANC looks forward to providing information as the new administration’s policy evolves and to working with constituents and officials in Washington to keep Estonia on the radar screen.