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.
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.
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 https://s.zoomerang.com/r/EANCpoliticalaction (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.