On September 18th, the Central and Eastern European Coalition (CEEC) held its first virtual policy event called “Resilience and Russian Interference: Neutralizing the Kremlin’s Campaign to Dismantle Democracy.”
The motivation behind the event stemmed from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Op-Ed published this past July in the National Interest, and the need to respond. Speakers for the CEEC webinar were Viktoras Daukšas of debunk.eu, David Kramer, a Senior Fellow at the Václav Havel Program for Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University, former Ambassador William Courtney, currently an adjunct professor at the RAND Corporation and executive professor of the RAND Business Leaders Forum and finally retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who holds the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Michael Sawkiw, Executive Vice President of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America and Director of the Ukrainian National Information Service (UNIS) moderated the discussion. In total fifty-three people attended the virtual event.
In his opening remarks, General Hodges complimented the Baltic states, saying that they have set an example of political courage. “All senators know of the Baltics because of their presence on Capitol Hill,” he said. He pointed out that the Black Sea region community should take Baltics as an example in finding inspiration for their own political courage.
David Kramer addressed the Putin regime, calling it an existential threat that “can’t even protect its own people,” citing the recent poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. He added that Russia under Putin is a threat to its neighbors and to the United States and that it does not respect its own human rights much less the sovereign integrity of other nations. Putin is looking to destabilize its neighbors, said Kramer, and doesn’t want them to succeed but most likely does not want the responsibility of invading its neighbors.
Viktoras Daukšas of debunk.eu, a group promoting the work of Lithuanian “elves” who actively fight Russian disinformation trolls, mentioned the vast impact of Russian disinformation surrounding COVID-19 as a part of anti-NATO influence. “Russia is using democratic values to degrade democracy,” said Daukšas.
On lessons for fighting and addressing Russian disinformation, Hodges mentioned the difficultly of taking legal action against the Putin regime and affiliated organizations. He said that from the perspective of the United States “we have a good story to tell but we’re not telling it right.” Furthermore, he also said that it is currently problematic to be critical of Russia when democracy in the United States “isn’t exactly in great shape either.” Kramer, in response, said that there have been indictments in relation to Russian disinformation, but agreed that it is incredibly hard to take individuals and/or entities to trial. “We have to fight disinformation with facts,” said Kramer. On that note, Ambassador Courtney pointed out that individuals on social media have a role in exposing disinformation. Daukšas went further to say that social media companies should be responsible for fighting disinformation.
As an offshoot to countering Russian disinformation, Hodges stressed the importance of private investment in the Three Seas Initiative, which would unite the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black Sea regions through infrastructure and economic development. He said, “if we don’t invest the Chinese will.” Greece, for instance, said Hodges, should be considered for initiative membership. General Hodges also mentioned other related development projects such as Rail Baltica, a rail line which would connect all three Baltic states, but which has stagnated due to leadership changes and disagreement between the three countries, as well as E40 a waterway that would connect the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea through a series of rivers and water sources.
On a final note, considering the developing situation in Belarus, Kramer chastised the slow response from the West. Hodges agreed, saying “we are feeling the absence of U.S. leadership” on the world stage. As a last comment, Ambassador Courtney said that Europe needs to take the lead moving forward.