“Terror Has Gone Low-Tech” Says Corri Zoli, Writing in Foreign Policy

Terror Has Gone Low-Tech

The Catalonia attacks are a case study in the future of violent extremism. Governments need to figure out how to respond.

(Re-published from Foreign Policy | Oct. 2, 2017) After the fifth low-tech terrorist attack this year alone in the U.K. — not to mention a spate of attacks across Europe since 2014, and earlier — it is time for governments to reevaluate their approach. At the core of this self-assessment should be a simple recognition, which itself requires separating facts from appearances when it comes to terrorism.

Terrorist attacks in Europe have occurred at such a pace in the last few months that we are in danger of treating them as the new normal. No sooner had the attack on Barcelona’s La Rambla district disappeared from the headlines than the Parsons Green London tube station was targeted in an improvised explosive device attack claimed by the Islamic State. Worse, without time to pause, analyze the case facts, or think strategically, law enforcement across Europe and elsewhere run the risk of getting stuck in a reactive rather than proactive stance.

“Careful analysis exposes common themes across these attacks, which are useful in a strategic response to the hard-to-predict acts of low-tech terror.”

Yet careful analysis exposes common themes across these attacks, which are useful in a strategic response to the hard-to-predict acts of low-tech terror. Although this analysis will focus on the brotherly ties that many analysts missed in the recent Barcelona terror attacks, readers will readily see elements echoed in Parsons Green, in other recent U.K. attacks (Westminster, London Bridge, and Manchester), and beyond. In many cases, the attackers’ networks were held together by family ties. The suspects in Parsons Green, for instance, were foster brothers, young men with recent immigrant backgrounds, who used low-tech terror tactics in busy, unguarded public places; and they appear to have responded to calls from a parent terror organization (in the case of London, by Inspire, an al Qaeda magazine) to attack trains.

The ties that bind

In the three incidents associated with the recent August Barcelona terror attacks, nine of the 12 attackers were brothers. Only leader Abdelbaki Es Satty and two additional recruits, Mohamed Houli Chemlal and Salh El Karib, did not possess family ties in the group. The operatives were young (with the exception of Es Satty) and shared Moroccan nationality or heritage. This kinship element was often glossed over in discussions of the Catalonia attacks, as well as others in which cell members were often related in other ways (for examples, cousins, via families in marriage, etc.).

Although undertheorized, the subject of kinship in terrorism research reveals the utility of social network theory in underscoring how interpersonal relationships — the ties that bind — structure both groups and commitment levels. In low-tech terror attacks in Belgium, France, the U.K., and elsewhere, these bonds — literal or constructed — help operationalize “brothers in arms” willing to sacrifice themselves for transcendent aims. (Literal bonds involve biological, kinship relations in families, brothers and cousins, while constructed bonds involve the close friendships.)

So what role can identifying kinship ties play in government responses to repeated low-tech terrorist attacks, and can it help to deter such attacks?

Catalonia: the facts and the suspects

Any discussion of preventive and countermeasures must begin with case facts and to contemplate the details of this now familiar style of low-tech, small-cell attack in urban settings. The Aug. 17, 2017, La Rambla van attack was executed by an Islamic State cell and involved three related incidents, all linked back to a central figure, Es Satty. He was incarcerated between 2010 and 2014 for drug smuggling from North Africa, had established ties with al Qaeda jihadis from the 2004 train attack, and successfully appealed his deportation order in 2015 after his release from prison. He was also the subject of recent Belgian intelligence warnings to Catalan authorities.

The Alcanar explosion: The night before the Barcelona attack — Wednesday, Aug. 16 — in the town of Alcanar, several members of the Islamic State cell accidentally blew up their house, killing two members: Es Satty, who rented a room in the house, and 22-year-old Youssef Aallaa, born in Naour, Morocco, and affiliated with the Ripoll mosque, where Es Satty worked as an imam. A third member was injured in the attack — 21-year-old Spanish national from Melilla, Chemlal, reported to be the bomb maker, who is currently under arrest.

Like Aallaa and his two brothers, Mohamad and Said, Chemlal was recruited by Es Satty via the Moroccan immigrant community in Ripoll. Authorities discovered more than 100 gas canisters stored at the location, and supplies of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) indicated that the group was planning a spectacular bombing of the Sagrada Família basilica. Es Satty had communicated to his roommate — internet café owner el Karib who bought tickets for both Es Satty and Moroccan national Driss Oukabir — that he was soon leaving for Morocco, where he had already sent his wife and children …

To read the full article, click here.

 

Equifax Data Breach: Let the Blame Game Begin

By Christopher W. Folk (LAW ’17)

In the data breach, Equifax blames Apache >>> Apache rebuts—In the end consumers still lose

(Re-published from Crossroads: Cybersecurity Law & Policy | Sept. 11, 2017) In the wake of a massive data breach, Equifax appears to be blaming a vulnerability in the Apache Software Foundation’s Apache Struts Web Framework, according to a post on Apache.org.  

The Apache Struts Project Management Committee’s post goes on to say that the assumption that the Equifax breach may have relied on a vulnerability in the struts framework that was discovered on Sept. 4, 2017. The post posits that this indicates that if the attackers relied on this vulnerability this would be a zero-day exploit since the issue was not detected until well after the attacks which took place starting in mid-May of 2017.  Furthermore, the PMC’s post asserts that this particular exploit outlined in CVE-2017-9805 may have existed for nine years; however, it was not a known issue during that timeframe and in fact the PMC asserts that as soon as Apache became aware of the issue a fix was developed and made available.

PMC’s post goes on to outline a few key steps that businesses and individuals using Apache struts (or any other supporting software) should implement:

  1. Inventory the frameworks and libraries you are using in your software development and products and maintain visibility into new releases, patches, vulnerabilities, etc.
  2. For each of those, create and utilize a process to test and roll-out security fixes in shorter time-periods (e.g. days vs. weeks).
  3. Don’t build your products on the assumption that the software you are using is flawless.
  4. Create security layers: don’t create a situation where a breach from the presentation (e.g., webpage layer) can endanger underlying back-end data.
  5. Establish baselines to monitor for unusual traffic or data flows which will help to identify network anomalies and potential intrusions and exfiltrations.

By way of comment, I have written an open letter to Equifax …

Dear Equifax:

Please wake up and realize that finger-pointing, trying to blame Apache or any other software products—in addition to the incredibly poor-timing of the executive stock option sales before this breach was made public—are not going to help you in the court of public opinion, nor in any court of law where jurors may sit.

As a consumer, and a business professional, it would have been reassuring to learn that the breach was only to grab encrypted records, since that is how you should be storing our data, or to learn that you were giving those executives the boot since the mere appearance of impropriety was tantamount to deceit and malfeasance.  However, you chose instead to state that the executives had no idea there had been a breach days after it was discovered (in spite of the fact that the breach had been underway since mid-May) and then to assert that it wasn’t really your fault since the attacker used an exploit to exfiltrate unencrypted records.  

Furthermore, if you had performed input validation or sanitization then the vulnerability in struts could not have been exploited in the first place (see this post from Imperva).

Needless to say, at this early stage in the game, your handling of this breach ever since it has been discovered appears to be a case study in what not to do.  As your shares continue their downward movement and as consumers and businesses alike start to realize the repercussions of this breach, it is unlikely that you have issued a single statement or taken a single step to help yourself, or your consumers and users.

Several days after the breach was disclosed, some Equifax executives were able to sell their stock at around $145 to $146 per share. Today (Sept. 11) Equifax shares closed at $113.12.  Meanwhile 143 million of us are waiting to sign up for “free” credit monitoring so we can see when someone tries to use this data to steal our identities.  However, as the government OPM breach taught us, data is worth so much more than just identify theft.  Once you get enough data points on a person, the sky’s the limit.

In short, “thanks” for encrypting our precious data, which would have cost you a little bit of money and would have slowed down some of your back-end processes but would have made the attackers work a whole lot harder to grab our data (in a readable and usable format).

Sincerely,

John Q. Public

Christopher W. Folk is a 2017 graduate of SU College of Law. 

Erdoğan on the Warpath with Germany Ahead of 2017 Elections

By Kamil Szubart

On Aug. 18, 2017, Turkish President Recep T. Erdoğan appealed to the members of the Turkish diaspora in Germany not to vote for four German major parties—the Christian Democratic Union, Christian Social Union in Bavaria, Social Democratic Party (SPD), and Alliance 90/The Greens—in the Bundestag elections on Sep.24, 2017. In his view, all four parties—along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel—represent hostile attitudes to Turkey and its interests.

“Bilateral relations between the two countries have been simmering for a while now, and recently tensions have come to a boil.”

Erdoğan’s words are another escalation of tensions between Germany and Turkey, one that has been going on for a several months. Since the 2016 failed military coup, Turkey has increased its foreign policy assertiveness, including this latest attempt to redefine its relations with Germany. But although it might cause further difficulties in political and security cooperation between both countries—in counterterrorism and the migration crisis—Erdoğan’s pressure probably will not have a decisive impact on the outcome of the German elections.

To better understand the ongoing tensions between Germany and Turkey, it is necessary to take a look at internal and external factors influencing relations between Berlin and Ankara over the last months., including the strengthening of the Turkish diaspora.

The German-Turkish Bilateral Situation

Bilateral relations between the two countries have been simmering for a while now, and recently tensions have come to a boil. Firstly, on June 2, 2016, the Bundestag passed a resolution recognizing the 2015 Turkish massacre of the Armenians as the crime of genocide. Secondly, in the aftermath of the failed military coup, Turkish law enforcement and its secret service began a reprisal against political opponents. This action, endorsed by Erdoğan, was criticized by Merkel and the other members of her government. Compounding the issue, Turkey arrested 22 German citizens of Turkish descent and charged them with conducting terrorist activity and espionage. Among them were Deniz Yücel, a journalist for die Welt; Peter Steudtner, a human rights’ activist; and Tanner Kilic, head of the Turkish office of Amnesty International. Additionally, at the beginning of 2017 German authorities refused Turkish demands to hand over 414 Turkish diplomats, high-rank-soldiers, and family members serving in Germany who had sought a political asylum in the country. In response, Turkey accused Germany of a lack of progress fighting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Syrian branch of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), both of which have a strong foothold in Germany.

Meanwhile, German newspapers—based on sources in the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz)—have reported on an increase of intelligence activity in Germany by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MiT). Turkey appears to have collected intelligence on top German politicians, businesses, and Turkish dissidents.

Finally, ahead of the Turkish constitutional referendum scheduled for April 16, 2017, German authorities at both federal and state levels suppressed Turkish politicians who wanted to conduct political rallies among the Turkish diaspora in Germany, a move that angered Erdoğan so much, he compared present-day Germany with the Nazi-era Germany.

Geopolitical Factors Affecting German-Turkish Relations

Pre-dating the above tensions, in late August 2014, Merkel and her government approved material and training support for Kurdish paramilitary units (the Peshmerga) fighting against Islamic State (IS) in northern Iraq and Syria. In response, Ankara refused to permit German transport aircraft carrying supplies to the Kurds to stop at Incirlik Air Force Base. This step forced the Germans to look for an alternative: the British RAF Base in Akrotiri, Cyprus. Later, on Jan. 29, 2015, the German parliament set up a 12-month military training mission by Bundeswehr for the Peshmerga in northern Iraq.

Germany also maintains two military contingents in Turkey within the framework of the multinational coalition fighting IS. The first of them was stationed at Incirlik, alongside US troops. German aircraft conduct reconnaissance flights over Syria and northern Iraq, while troops provide logistical support for NATO aircraft in the region. The second German contingent is a part of the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) component in Geilenkirchen, Germany, which operates from the Forward Operation Base in southern Turkey. AWACS aircraft conduct reconnaissance flights over Turkey and the Mediterranean Sea. Although 17 NATO countries maintain AWACS, Germany is the most valuable contributor to the system.  

In June 2016, Turkish authorities rejected a request for Bundestag parliamentarians to visit German troops in Incirlik. This decision caused another diplomatic clash. Merkel, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier heavily criticized the Turkish decision, and, eventually, as a result of pressure from Germany and other NATO member countries, Ankara agreed to permit the parliamentarians to visit, on Oct. 5, 2016. However, to avoid further disputes, Germany took steps to relocate its contingent from Turkey to Al-Azraq Air Force Base in Jordan. The relocation started in July 2017, but it will take a few months for the contingent to reach full operational capacity.

Unfortunately, the withdrawal from Incirlik has not ameliorated tensions between the countries. In July 2017 another dispute erupted over access to the Forward Operating Base in Konya. On July 13, 2017, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs rescinded its permission for a group of German parliament members, led by Bundestag Defense Committee Chairman Wolfgang Hellmich, to visit German troops there. This escalating tension caught the attention of NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who committed to resolving the dispute. Stoltenberg held talks with the foreign ministers of Germany and Turkey, proposing a consensus agreement to allow regular visits of German troops by Bundestag parliamentarians, who would receive the status of NATO visitors (a designation that means Turkey would not be able to halt their entry). On Aug. 8, 2017, the Turks announced that German parliamentarians, as members of a NATO delegation, would be able to visit the base on Sept. 8, 2017.

The Turkish Diaspora in Germany

The Turkish diaspora in Germany is 3 million strong, with 800,000 Turks holding German citizenship and 530,000 possessing dual German and Turkish citizenship. However, the diaspora represents only about 2.2% of all eligible voters in Germany. These numbers nevertheless allow the Turkish authorities to transfer to Germany certain political disputes and internal conflicts, including violent clashes between supporters and opponents of Erdoğan, which have taken place in the streets of German cities. Conversely, the political situation in Turkey is being influenced by the emigrants, whose support of Erdoğan is growing.

Influence of the diaspora in Germany is also fueled by Turkish intelligence, which provides support to Turkish nationalist organizations such as the Gray Wolves, the Turkish Federation in Germany (ADÜTDF), and the National Action Party (MHP), as well as combating the Turkish (Gülen Movement) and Kurdish opposition movements (PKK and PYD). MiT intelligence also appears to be running a propaganda and disinformation campaign targeting the German authorities and top politicians. For this purpose, it uses Turkish media outlets operating in Germany.

It’s worth mentioning that, although its overall electoral influence is small, the Turkish diaspora often has a high electoral turnout. In the last two Bundestag elections, Turkish voters went to the polls in high numbers: 71.5% (2013) and 70.8% (2009). In recent years, the center-left and left parties—such as SPD and the Greens—have dominated the Turkish vote. In the 2009 Bundestag elections, SPD received 50.2% and the Greens 31%. In the 2013 Bundestag elections, SPD acquired 64%, the Greens 12%, and the Left (die Linke) 11% votes.

Erdoğan’s popularity among members of the Turkish diaspora should not have a decisive impact on the outcome of the 2017 elections because of the negligible importance of Turkish votes in the context of the whole country. But Turkish votes might affect individual parties, such as the SPD, possibly undermining the party’s current position within the Turkish community and contributing to the party’s decline.

Conclusion: Erdoğan at the Poker Table

President Erdoğan wants to consolidate his support in Turkey. To achieve this goal, he is turning to foreign policy and foreign relations strategies with his country’s most important partners. According to Erdoğan, relations between Turkey and Germany remain asymmetric, and Turkey is the side that is being abused by its powerful counterpart. Therefore, Erdoğan thinks he needs to be assertive and to be seen as a powerful political leader who strongly articulates his nation’s interests.

Indeed, Erdoğan feels emboldened by his latest political successes, such as his Justice and Development Party (AKP) winning the 2015 political elections and the outcome of the 2017 constitutional referendum. He also continues the process of growing ties with Russia, which becomes a vital partner for Turkey and which, in his view, could be a substitute of Turkish relations with its partners from NATO and the European Union (EU).

Regarding geopolitics, Erdoğan holds a key card: he can moderate the migration crisis through stopping or allowing uncontrolled migrants from Syria to enter the EU. This migration flow is an essential factor in German politics, for the country has already taken 1.2 million migrants from the Middle East and North Africa regions. Conversely, Berlin could hypothetically put pressure on Turkey by using economic measures, freezing German direct investments in Turkey, for instance, or limiting the tourism industry by continuing issuing security alerts for German tourists planning visits to Turkey. Moreover, Germany, as the political and economic leader of the EU, can suspend the talks on Turkey’s accession to the EU. However, such steps will not be implemented before the 2017 elections, due to fears of protests or social unrest by members of the Turkish diaspora.

Another card Erdoğan holds is the role his country plays in the NATO coalition fight against IS. The United States, especially, relies on Incirlik Air Force Base, flying missions out of the base and storing tactical nuclear weapons there (within the framework of NATO’s Nuclear Sharing Policy).

US President Donald J. Trump might be considered Erdoğan’s “wild card,” allowing the Turkish president to continue his aggressive rhetoric against Germany. Since the beginning of his presidency, Trump has been paying less attention than his predecessor to citizens’ rights, political pluralism, and democratic values, while arguably focusing more on the efficiency of the fight against terrorism, in which Turkey plays a crucial role despite its severe violations of democratic standards. Lack of criticism from Trump has meant that that responsibility for criticizing Turkey has been taken up by Chancellor Merkel, who has in the past few years become Erdoğan’s main political enemy.

INSCT Research and Practice Associate Kamil Szubart is a 2017 visiting fellow at INSCT, via the Kosciuszko Foundation. He works as an analyst for the Institute for Western Affairs in Poznan, Poland, where he is responsible for German foreign and security policy, transatlantic relations, Islamic threats in German-native-speaking countries and topics related to NATO, CSDP, OSCE, and the UN. Currently, he is working on a doctoral dissertation examining US-German relations in the field of international security since 9/11.

 

 

Trump & North Korea: Beware the Boogeyman

By David M. Crane

(Re-published from The Jurist | Aug. 11, 2017) Tyrants need a war. Looking back over the past hundred years one finds that tyrants come to power in conflict and remains in power largely due to conflict. It centers the populace, distracting them from other societal challenges to include their civil liberties.

Historically these conflicts created by a tyrant, dictator or insecure leader rarely succeed. The immediate result may be a distraction, but in the long term that nation, and its leader, end up weakened and in some cases worse off than they were before the conflict.

Politically weak or insecure leaders also need a distraction. I call those distractions boogeymen–nations, a peoples, or culture that the leader perceives to be a threat to the national security. This boogeyman also distracts from the political challenges both real and imagined that leader faces. Hitler had the Jews; Stalin capitalism; the Ayatollah the “Great Satin,” and Assad “terrorists” by way of a few examples.

Dictators and other leaders need a populace that is afraid. Fear is a powerful psychological tool to govern with and leaders use it for various reasons. A populace that is afraid of “something” looks to its leader for security and a solution. This is where the shadow of a boogeyman is useful. Fear can bring a society together in common cause.

Historically these conflicts created by a tyrant, dictator or insecure leader rarely succeed. The immediate result may be a distraction, but in the long term that nation, and its leader, end up weakened and in some cases worse off than they were before the conflict. Various circumstances intervene that were unintended consequences. History shows that these unintended consequences rarely benefit a leader.

Only the citizens of that country suffer those consequences. Simply put some of their loved ones do not come home. Tens of thousands perish their nation weakened politically and economically by the conflict. The nation itself loses stature internationally. Weakened trade through sanctions and other action only bring more unrest and insecurity.

The result is a country in worse shape than before the conflict. It all blows up in the tyrant’s face, with more unrest and division a result. In this information age, conflict is bad for global trade and business, unlike the industrial age where conflict was good for business. The world suffers from this type of threat and conflict as well.

As our President, politically weak, deeply insecure and challenged on all fronts looks for a distraction and a boogeyman, he conveniently has been handed one in the guise of Kim Jong-un and North Korea. From the President’s point of view, he has a “twofer,” a threat worthy of a conflict and a boogeyman. To maintain his political relevancy (and to silence whatever demons whisper to him) a looming crisis with nuclear implications is just what the doctor ordered. Words such as “fire and fury” ring true to him.

Suddenly the Russia scandal is off the front page. No one is talking about collusion, conspiracy, perjury or obstruction of justice. Attention is diverted across the Pacific Ocean to a hermit kingdom led by a crafty leader who uses just this type of tension to maintain his own power.

Kim Jong-un is a dictator, he needs a looming conflict, and he needs that boogeyman, as well, to distract his citizenry away from daily famine towards an impending attack by their boogeyman, the United States. The President has handed him politically a reason to lead his nation and consolidate power on a silver platter.

We have an insecure and an unstable leader in our President now in a possible “dance of death” with a brutal tyrant who is “crazy like a fox” …

To read the full article, click here.

 

Lady Liberty’s Promise Matters to Immigration Law

By Ryan J. Suto 

(Re-published from The Hill | Aug. 4, 2017) President Trump and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue’s (R-Ga.) White House announcement of the new version of the RAISE Act, a bill that aims to lower legal immigration to the U.S. by more than 40 percentby turning away non-English speakers and low-skilled or unskilled immigrants, flies in the face of American ideals and is simply bad policy.

Miller’s dismissal of the reference to the Statue of Liberty in a policy discussion shows a narrow understanding of the framing of ‘American tradition.’” 

The bill itself is problematic first because it awards points for “English-language ability,” which will discriminate against millions of hard-working and well-meaning individuals from non-English speaking countries. This preference reflects the broader demographic goals implicit in the Trump administration’s other policies, such as the wall on the Mexican border and Muslim ban.

Second, the bill makes no economic sense. The Bipartisan Policy Center stated, “The RAISE Act’s goal of reducing legal immigration is a threat to the U.S. economy and would place additional strains on the Social Security system by reducing the size of the labor force.”

Later that day, White House senior policy advisor Stephen Miller answered questions about the new RAISE Act from the Brady briefing room. At the start of a heated exchange, CNN’s Jim Acosta, a first-generation Cuban American, invoked “American tradition” in challenging the law, referencing the Emma Lazarus poem, “The New Colossus,” that appears on the monument: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

In response, Miller stated, “The Statue of Liberty is a symbol of Liberty enlightening the world, it’s a symbol of American liberty lighting the world. The poem that you’re referring to was added later is not part of the actual Statue of Liberty.” During the exchange with Acosta, Miller rhetorically asked what number of immigrants would meet the “Statue of Liberty poem’s law of the land.”

Miller’s dismissal of the reference to the Statue of Liberty in a policy discussion shows a narrow understanding of the framing of “American tradition.” That tradition includes more than just what is found in dusty law books, but also what is called meta-doctrine. Meta-doctrine is composed of the concepts and prescriptions that provide structure and limitations to specific legal doctrines. They form the spirit of the country and define our goals and how we see ourselves …

To read the full article, click here.

INSCT CAS in Postconflict Reconstruction alumnus Ryan J. Suto (JD/MS/MAIR ’13) is Government Relations Manager for the Arab American Institute, an organization that encourages the direct participation of Arab Americans in political and civic life.

Shoring Up the Eastern Flank: VP Pence’s Visit to Estonia, Georgia, and Montenegro

By Kamil Szubart

From July 30 to Aug. 2, 2017, US Vice President Mike Pence paid a three-day visit to Estonia, Georgia, and Montenegro. This trip took place less than a month after President Donald J. Trump’s visit to Poland, where he participated in the Three Seas Initiative Summit (TSI) in Warsaw, gathering political leaders from 12 countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

“Pence’s visit to Eastern Europe—taking in two ex-Soviet republics—was primarily focused on the US commitment to NATO.”

The Pence visit can be seen as part of the new US strategy toward the region, which includes a reassuring US politico-military commitment to Central and Eastern Europe, especially significant after the 2014 Russian aggression in Ukraine, and increasing economic ties between US businesses and their partners in the region.

Some also looked for the Trump Administration to use Pence’s trip to underscore a hard line toward Russia and to counter the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. After the success of Trump’s visit to Poland, the White House has begun to consider Central and Eastern Europe as a strong foothold and as a strategic balance for US interests in Western Europe, and particularly in Germany, France, Italy, and Spain.

Pence’s visit to Eastern Europe—taking in two ex-Soviet republics—was primarily focused on the US commitment to NATO. He echoed Article 5 by saying, “At the heart of our alliance is a solemn promise that an attack on one is an attack on all.” Trump previously had been criticized for failing to pledge commitment to the Alliance during his first visit in Europe and, specifically, during the NATO Meeting in Brussels on May 25, 2017.

Estonia: In the Shadow of Zapad 2017

In Estonia, Pence met with Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas and the three Baltic States presidents: Kersti Kaljulaid (Estonia), Raimonds Vējonis (Latvia), and Dalia Grybauskaitė (Lithuania). Estonia and its Baltic sister states are facing a tremendous threat from Russia. Despite the fact that these countries have been in NATO since 2004, their forces would be unable to counter Russian aggression, and Russian troops attacking from three sides (Belarus, the Kaliningrad Oblast, and the main Russian territory) could overrun the Baltic States within 45 to 60 hours.

Therefore, the Baltic States have increasingly invested in their armed forces. In fact, Estonia, along with Poland, is the regional leader in defense expenditures and is one of only five NATO member countries—the US, the UK, Poland, Estonia, and Greece—to invest more than 2% of GDP on defense. The Baltic States also spent plenty of diplomatic capital to bring NATO to the region. At the 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw, the leaders of 28 NATO member countries agreed to deploy four multinational Battalion Battle Groups (BBG) to the Baltic States and Poland. And since 2004, NATO also has been responsible for protecting Baltic airspace within the framework of Baltic Air Policing. In response to the 2014 Russian aggression in Ukraine, NATO enhanced its air mission adding four jet fighters to protect the states.  

The visit also was symbolic because it took place exactly one month before joint Russian and Belarusian military exercises called Zapad 2017. In recent years, Russia has increased its military capabilities through regular military exercises that often involved imagined aggression against NATO nations and their allies (a nuclear attack on Stockholm, for instance). Baltic leaders will also recall that the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia followed the Kavkaz 2008 military exercises. Russia further increased tensions by delaying its notification of Zapad 2017 to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), violating the 2011 OSCE Vienna Document that is designed to ensure transparency in large-scale military exercises. This year’s drills might engage up to two Russian divisions throughout Belarus, Kaliningrad, and the Russian Western Military District.

Georgia: Waiting for NATO

The second stop was Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, where the Vice President met with President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili. Again, Pence reaffirmed the US commitment to Article 5. He also noted that the US and its allies are seeking better relations with Russia but that the US “strongly condemns Russia’s occupation on Georgian soil,” directly referring to the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Pence also attended the 2017 Noble Partner military exercises, involving the US, Germany, the UK, Turkey, Slovenia, Ukraine, and Armenia.

Notably, Pence strongly supported Georgia’s ambition to join NATO. Although it was agreed at the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest that Georgia could become a member, there has been no consensus regarding the next enlargement of the Alliance. Most NATO member countries—and particularly France and Germany—are aware that putting Georgia on the formal road to membership will trigger a possibly hostile Russian response. Moreover, a Georgian membership could mean collective defense is required in the event of another conflict between Georgia and its neighbor. Currently, Georgia can only expect NATO support for political reforms, the strengthening of civilian control of the military, and participation in the Partnership for Peace (PfP).

Montenegro: A Bulwark in the Balkans

Finally, on Aug. 2, Pence held a meeting with Montenegrin President Filip Vujanović and Prime Minister Duško Marković. On July 5, 2017, Montenegro became the 29th NATO member state, the first in nearly 10 years.

Montenegro’s role within NATO will be to help stop the spread of Russian influence throughout the Balkans. Recently, Montenegro accused Russian secret services of masterminding a coup attempt to prevent the country from joining the Alliance, and in June 2017 the Montenegrin High Court charged two alleged Russian intelligence officers with attempting acts against the constitutional order.

This episode illustrates that the Balkans have become increasingly unstable due to Russian influence, poor economic conditions, the rise of Islamist extremism, and foreign terrorist fighters returning from the Middle East and North Africa.

The visit in the Balkans is a clear signal to Russia that the US and its allies will stand together with Montenegro against any pressure and outside (i.e., Russian) interference. During the meeting with Balkan leaders, Pence underlined the need to keep the door open to further NATO enlargement in the region, which could help with stability, democracy, and human rights issues. Pence’s visit and words were also a boost to other countries in the region, especially Serbia, FYR Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which are interested in joining NATO and enhancing bilateral ties with the US.

Whatever the Balkan nations took away from the visit, it is probable that Pence made a much better first impression on Montenegro’s Marković than President Trump did. At the NATO meeting in Brussells, Trump appeared to shove the Prime Minister aside to get to the front of a group photo opportunity causing a minor diplomatic stir!

INSCT Research and Practice Associate Kamil Szubart is a 2017 visiting fellow at INSCT, via the Kosciuszko Foundation. He works as an analyst for the Institute for Western Affairs in Poznan, Poland, where he is responsible for German foreign and security policy, transatlantic relations, Islamic threats in German-native-speaking countries and topics related to NATO, CSDP, OSCE, and the UN. Currently, he is working on a doctoral dissertation examining US-German relations in the field of international security since 9/11.