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.
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.