April 9, 2018
The U.S. has a long history and a vested interest in the Baltic States. On the heels of the leaders of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia celebrating 100 years of independence with President Trump at the White House, law makers and pundits continue wringing their hands and bemoaning Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election.
Meanwhile in the Baltics, they have something to moan about. The threat from Russia is worryingly real. Moscow’s sabre rattling and barely veiled threats grow increasingly grim. President Putin gleefully snatched every opportunity afforded by the cringe-worthy Obama/Clinton “reset.” The Russians stepped into the vacuum in Syria and pressed emboldened into Middle East. They now stand cheek to jowl with Iran, Turkey and Syrian leader Bashar Assad. All a direct result of a flaccid, defeatist Obama administration, where lack of foreign policy was considered policy.
The U.S. has long adopted a defensive posture toward Russia’s interference in our system of government. The sanctions targeting Putin’s billionaire cronies imposed by President Trump is a proactive and necessary step. Perhaps now we meaningfully engage our Baltic allies and take the information warfare fight to the Russians? Launching a vigorous information operation on Russia’s doorstep will likely give their bellicose leadership pause. As my former boss and the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep Ed Royce (R-Calif.) suggested, “and why not go on the offense to release information exposing corruption at the Kremlin?”
While the Baltics would stand no chance in a conventional military showdown with their giant neighbor, they can certainly disrupt and impact the information warfare battlefield. The digitization of the Baltic states is robust, advanced and coupled to the West. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are no longer deferential to the Kremlin. They are legitimate, respected allies, punching well above their weight within NATO. Estonia is one of only four alliance countries spending the requisite 2 percent of GDP on defense. Each country sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. I was privileged to serve alongside Estonian soldiers in Helmand Province.
News and social media in the United States is caught in a relentless whirl of agitation over Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have practical, long term experience with Moscow-waged information warfare. This is not the Baltic states first Russian rodeo.
Media is firepower for the Russian government. To counter Moscow’s overt aggression, Estonia launched a Russian-language public broadcasting channel. They bolstered the messaging operation with blogs and counter-propaganda websites, to combat pro-Moscow news which dominates the former Soviet states.
The US government would be well-served to emulate Estonia’s efforts and energetically seek out and lay bare Russian disinformation and propaganda masquerading as authentic news. The U.S. already has the tools — intelligence agencies, and the Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security. American resources, intelligence and resolve would strengthen our Baltic allies’ capabilities, and bolster U.S. efforts overall.
Russia will again try to interfere in our political process. Regrettably, the technologies and processes they targeted in 2016 remain untouched. The Kremlin’s arsenal includes “fake news,” misinformation, control of broadcasting outlets, and publishing inaccurate “news” via state run media. There are millions of automated “bots” on social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn designed to propagate dissonance and societal perplexity. The U.S. for its part must deploy every available instrument — TV, radio, social media, algorithms, cooperation with technology companies, intelligence, diplomacy and, importantly, harness indigenous outlets, forums and experts from the Baltics to Poland to Finland. It’s time to we asked our allies for help, provide the resources they need and wage information operations in the heart of mother Russia.
Anir Ruussaar, chief of content at Estonia’s government-run Russian language network, summed it up. “U.S. and all the EU and NATO members understand that in the modern world, strategic communications or real journalism, real information, is sometimes more important than tanks or warplanes.”
Gregory Keeley is a retired lieutenant commander with service in both the United States Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. He is a veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Pacific. LCDR Keeley also served as senior advisor to a vice chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, Rep. Jim Saxton (R-Pa.), and to a chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.).