Thu, Mar 08, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Baltic nations warn the US not to underestimate Russia threat

By Dave Clark  /  AFP, WASHINGTON

Foreign ministers from the Baltic states, three exposed allies on NATO’s eastern flank, on Monday visited Washington to urge Western leaders not to respond naively to Russian threats.

The envoys from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania carried a stark message to meetings with top officials in a city already gripped by political infighting and fears of Kremlin intrigue.

Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sven Mikser, Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics and Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevicius were careful to thank US President Donald Trump’s administration for its support for NATO.

However, in an interview after their joint meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the foreign ministers shared their concerns about Russia’s “hybrid” threat to the West.

“I think what we have seen in the past four or three years is the community of democratic nations is under the attack,” Rinkevics said of Russian interference and interventions. “The very basis of our democratic institutions are under attack through social media by fake news, and also through the influence of money, and it is very important that we stick together.”

The Baltic republics will be able to reinforce this message once more on April 3, when their presidents travel to Washington for a White House summit with Trump that they hope will send a message to Moscow.

Rinkevics dubbed the threat “unprecedented since the 1930s and 40s” — the period during which the young Baltic republics fell under the control first of Nazi Germany, then the Soviet Union.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the three have thrown their lot in with the West, turning away from Moscow’s orbit by joining NATO’s mutual defense pact and the EU.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has never made any secret that he resents this and regards former Soviet republics as belonging in Moscow’s zone of influence.

As recently as last week, when asked which single historical event he would most like to reverse, Putin said: “The collapse of the Soviet Union.”

To many, such a statement might seem like electoral bravado designed to play on Russian nationalism three weeks before an election that is expected to confirm Putin in office until 2024.

However, the Baltic states cannot afford to be complacent.

Already this year, Russia seized de facto control of a large chunk of Georgia. In 2014, Moscow annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea and it still supports pro-Russian rebels in the east of the country.

The Kremlin might think twice about directly confronting a NATO member on the battlefield, but Russia — which has a struggling economy and stagnant population — has other methods of wielding influence.

The visiting foreign ministers know this only too well, their countries having long complained of “hybrid warfare” — military, financial and political manipulation backed by computer hacking and propaganda.

For example, Putin continues to deny any involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but US officials regard the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk as entirely Moscow-invented and controlled entities.

In Syria, Moscow’s intervention has been accompanied by the operations of a mysterious Russian private military outfit, and in the West, intelligence agencies have warned of repeated attempts to undermine electoral democracy.

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