Advocacy

Senate Committee Issues Major Report on Russia’s Assault on Democracy

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.SFRC report cover

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.

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Advocacy

EANC Meets with State Department

Estonian American National Council (EANC) representatives recently joined Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) colleagues for a briefing from the Department of State (DoS) Baltic team.  The Director of Nordic and Baltic Affairs and desk officers for Latvia and Lithuania shared their insights on policy and current and upcoming events relevant to U.S.-Baltic relationships.  Representatives from the Global Engagement Center (GEC) and Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (BECA) were also present to brief us on their programs.

The meeting started by recognizing the centennial celebrations the nations are holding throughout 2018.  Each embassy has a long slate of events across the U.S. that State is facilitating to ensure their success.  The Department is also creating a pictorial display for one of their main lobbies showing the evolution of U.S.-Baltic relations over the years, highlighting significant events such as the 1940 Welles Declaration that established U.S. refusal to recognize Soviet annexation of the nations, and the U.S.-Baltic Charter of 1998 supporting the nations’ full integration into European and transatlantic structures and cooperation.

U.S. Diplomacy Center

U.S. Diplomacy Center, the planned location for the display depicting the history of U.S.-Baltic relations.  (Source:  diplomacy.state.gov)

The display will coincide with a possible Baltic summit in the works for this spring in Washington with the three Baltic presidents.  The event will likely include two half-day programs.  The White House portion will not be open to the public while the second program, featuring U.S.-Baltic business opportunities, will encourage public interaction.  The embassies are coordinating with the Department of Commerce, private entities, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to highlight the success of Baltic business in the U.S.

The GEC representative described GEC’s work to counter disinformation by engaging at local levels with governments, NGOs, schools, social and civic leaders and others.  Having learned that issuing active rebuttals to false messages is ineffective, they have shifted their focus to helping their partners establish credibility through positive messaging and building resiliency.   In the Baltic countries, they are working with local organizations and agencies to identify the key goals of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns, create media literacy among audiences, and facilitate information sharing among the countries to improve their effectiveness against the information threat.

The discussion with the BECA representatives centered around proposals to reduce the number of J-1 visas, which allow foreign citizens to come to the U.S. as students, au pairs, participants in exchange programs, short-term workers and in other temporary capacities.   Participants emphasized the importance, both to the Baltics and to the U.S. Baltic communities, of educational opportunities, internships, exchanges, and the like, that require the J-1 visa. They recommended increasing, rather than decreasing, the number of visas available.

The meeting closed out with a review of upcoming events and agreement to mutually support each other wherever possible.  All in attendance clearly shared appreciation for the milestone this year marks for Baltic independence will continue work to strengthen U.S.-Baltic relations.

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