Baltic nations warn the US not to underestimate Russia threat

By Dave Clark  /  AFP, WASHINGTON

Thu, Mar 08, 2018 - Page 9

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.

In Washington, a special prosecutor has already filed several charges against alleged Russian hackers and online propagandists, and is probing allegations that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian agents.

The probe has angered Trump, who denies any collaboration and plays down the idea that Putin might have tried to swing the 2016 election his way, as the White House staggers from one scandalous revelation to another.

The US Department of State under Tillerson has so far failed to draw up a list of targets for new sanctions on Russia, despite US Congress having passed a law authorizing tough new measures.

This week, it emerged that the department has yet to receive tens of millions of dollars that Congress wanted transferred from the defense budget to begin an anti-Russian counterpropaganda effort.

Trump has complained that the political focus on the scandal has undermined any effort he might have made to patch up ties with Putin and to work with Russia to fight terrorism and to isolate North Korea.

However, for the ministers it would be a mistake to ignore one threat to deal with another, when cyberspace and the globalized economy and media marketplace are becoming one hybrid battlefield.

“Security these days is increasingly indivisible,” Mikser said. “There’s no clear division between internal and external security, and also geographically. Security is becoming globalized.”

The visiting trio urged Washington to look the threat to their own and to European institutions in the face.

“We’re always suggesting to our colleagues in the United States and Europe to be more realistic, not to be naive. Dialogue is important as long as it doesn’t serve as a smoke screen to do nothing,” Linkevicius said.

The Lithuanian envoy noted Putin’s belligerence in a recent speech, in which he boasted that Russia had developed a new generation of nuclear arms to bypass missile defenses.

“That type of dialogue is not acceptable, and that’s military power, it’s not dialogue, it’s something else,” Linkevicius said.

All three ministers agreed that they would like to see US troops based more permanently in the Baltic, alongside their British, Canadian and German allies.

“We really should act, and do this visibly with tangible means,” Linkevicius said. “NATO will never escalate. NATO will never be aggressive, but nobody should be in any doubt that we will do whatever necessary to protect our territories.”