“Vilnius Security Forum 2021” summary and video

Vilnius Security Forum 2021 part I

Vilnius Security Forum 2021 part II

Vilnius Security Forum 2021 part III

Vilnius Security Forum 2021 part IV

Vilnius Security Forum 2021 “Western Readiness to Respond to Hybrid Threats

Panel discussion 1: The role of the civil Society in ensuring security and civil protection

Moderator: Mr. Aidas PETROŠIUS, Former Journalist, Political consultant (LT)

Panel: Mr. Konstantin EGGERT, Deutsche Welle, Journalist, Columnist, (RUS)

Dr. Pavel USOV, Center for Political Analysis and Prognosis, (BLR)

Dr. Michal BIJAK, Vice-Dean, Head of Biohazard Prevention Centre, Faculty of Biology and Environmental Protection at the University of Lodz, (POL)

  1. Eggert notes that it is very interesting to talk about civil society and its security in this modern age which is amazing in its fluidity and technological advancement. These developments bring societal and even moral change. In a way, the question on how civil society can be protected is a very EU-like question. For instance, he observes, in the US, it probably would not be a relevant question because in democratic states, the means to protect and empower civil society does not stem from the state itself but rather from the civil societies themselves. So, we should ask these civil societies whether they want to be protected. We would get a variety of answers to this.

Mr Eggert continues by pointing out how trust in Western institutions has eroded. The pandemic has demonstrated that the liberal world’s biggest enemies – Russia, China and Iran – will go all the way to weaken Western democracies. It is very difficult to protect civil societies when on the one hand European governments are criticizing China’s actions domestically, its international disinformation campaigns and hybrid espionage, but on the other hand are signing investment deals with China. As he emphasises – we cannot have both.

Another set of problems arises from the media. The situation where people can listen to the opinions that they like and agree with and not listen to the opinions that they do not like creates ideological ghettos, Mr. Eggert cautioned. What is needed is to incorporate mainstream media channels into the public sphere for everyone’s use, while creating an atmosphere of real arguments and real debate – that is the main task of the public broadcasting services, the columnist for DW suggests. Also, in terms of the role of the state in protecting civil society, it is probably wise to suggest that the state must ensure an uncensored intellectual debate at universities. In terms of debate, he points out that furthermore, the social media sphere should not be perceived as the exclusive domain of pro-democracy forces. For example, if you were to look at the statistics of Russian Telegram channels, they are ‘usurped’ by pro-Kremlin or Kremlin-funded channels and serve propaganda purposes.

There are hybrid threats that are emanating from authoritarian regimes that should be countered. For Western societies, first and foremost, there is a need to recognise external threats. However, it is a completely different picture in the East – civil societies in eastern countries should be protected from the state. Mr. Eggert concludes that it is in the nature of post-communist societies that are taking the time to adjust to the changes precipitated by the collapse of communism – they are cautious so that by opposing the regime’s ideology, they would not end up losing what they have achieved.

  1. Usov begins by also referring to how today, technology plays an important role in political and social processes around the world and especially in authoritarian countries like Belarus. In Belarus, technology takes on an important role informing a new type of civil society and protecting it, he explains. The aftermath of the 2020 election demonstrated how new digital channels of communication were helpful in mobilizing society and organizing mass protests around Belarus in 2020 and 2021.

A new initiative that Mr. Usov highlighted is the solidarity fund “BYSOL” helped activate the Belarussian civil society. It was created at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Belarus and organizes online fundraising campaigns to help medics and, after the 2020 presidential election, victims of regime repressions.

Finally, technology also helped the Belarussian diaspora communicate with the people protesting in Belarus and take part in the anti-Lukashenko regime action from abroad. This process of mobilization of Belarussian society precipitated by heavy use of technology will bring many changes in the future. Mr. Usov predicts. Education and knowledge of a different kind of government policies are key to mitigating disinformation.

  1. Bijak observes that, ironically, the WHO has labelled this pandemic an ‘infodemic’. On the internet, many false theories about the origin of the virus were disseminated, conspiracy theories on the general existence of the virus, effectiveness of masks, immunity to the virus, the vaccines and vaccination process – that vaccines can alter our DNA, that vaccines cause infertility etc. He emphasises that education is key to at least limiting this spread of disinformation. If people are educated, they will select information correctly. In this respect, CSOs should provide positive and educational material and campaign, also in regards to COVID-

Panel 2: Chaos as a strategy: how authoritarian powers fight against democracies

Moderator: Mrs. Dalia BANKAUSKAITĖ, Associated Professor at Vilnius University Communication Faculty and a Non-resident Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington, D.C (LTU)

Panel: LTC Valerijus ŠERELIS, Lithuanian Armed Forces TRADOC Institute of Military Studies, Director (LTU)

Mr. Linas KOJALA, Eastern European Studies Centre, director (LTU)

Dr. Florian HARTLEB, Lecturer at the Catholic University Eichstätt, and member of an expert group for the parliament of Lower Saxony (GER)

Mr. Justinas LINGEVIČIUS, PhD candidate at Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science (LTU)

  1. Šerelis begins by noting that terminologically, the concept of chaos means nothingness and emptiness, darkness, disorder, but concurrently, all Greek gods were born out of chaos. So, it represents not only disorder, but also opportunities. If the West perceives chaos as a sub-phase between peace and crisis, the East sees it as a next step, as an opportunity. Chaos might be used as a sublime strategy for creating conditions for the escalation of disorder. The lieutenant colonel explains that the indicators that an atmosphere of chaos has been created are: a) a disconnect within society; b) dissatisfaction. Chaos is an environment in which unconventional warfare can be conveniently operationalized. Unconventional warfare is usually clandestine, he notes, so to distinguish it and its sponsors is difficult, it also can offer the cover of plausible deniability.

Insurgency is another indicator of the strategy of chaos. V. Šerelis explains that the purpose of insurgency is political change but it is achieved by persuading or coercing the population through the use of violence and subversion. He states that we have to prevent divisions in society, keep alliances strong, identify threats early. We have to start with education, learn how to detect lies and threats and how to counter them. As he concluded, the lieutenant colonel observes that the antonym of education is stupiditification and this is exactly what we have to avoid. As such, the approach is ‘don‘t rush, think, evaluate.‘

  1. Kojala highlighted that the problem of liberal democracy today is that it is losing its normative attraction. In a survey of 34 countries by Pew Research, 52 per cent of respondents said that democracy is not capable of solving the world‘s problems. Democracy as a normative idea or as a goal is in big trouble because we live in a world where the alternatives tend to portray themselves as extremely efficient in terms of economic growth and tackling global or regional issues and making less of a mess of their political decision-making. Mr. Kojala observes that democracies face a persistent struggle between their interests and their values. There are ongoing efforts to find a balance between the two and take into account geopolitical matters, but this is still an ongoing discussion in Europe.

As he notes, democracies tend to underestimate themselves and that‘s why it might seem that they are losing and incapable of tackling the most pressing issues. For example, in terms of the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have mixed results between countries and it turned out that regime type is only one of the variables that allows to distinguish between countries. There is no reason to say that autocracies are capable of being more decisive or more effective in decision-making. The director of the EESC predicted that in the future, democracies will be very self-critical and autocracies will seem very effective and stable but if you look at the longer term, democracies seem to be the only ones that appear to be capable of ensuring sustainability.

The EU could become a stronger foreign policy and defence actor, L. Kojala says, and there are multiple concepts that could be implemented. However, dilemmas remain. It is quite evident that the EU member states still seem to think from their national point of view when they discuss foreign policy or defence policy issues. In this regard, it isn’t necessary to seek something new, we should instead work on the platforms we already have.

  1. Hartleb observes that in regard to the decline of liberal democracy, populism is a key term. Fake news is not a new phenomenon, but it is being employed as a new tool to destabilize the West. Mr. Hartleb points to Brexit as an example of the consequences of fake news. He expressed some pessimism over the future of liberal democracies, because the entrepreneurship-populist model approaches to politics are becoming more popular.

According to the lecturer, an increase in party politics activism is needed because maintaining neutrality in this regard is actually a disadvantage to the overall political cohesion of democracies. Party politics cannot be based on elites, we cannot strengthen our liberal democracies without grassroots party activism. Also, he notes, the alternative media is a topic for consideration – especially with the decline in quality of mainstream media, which has to be strengthened.

  1. Lingevičius notes that data access is becoming a new source of power and this is an issue because it results in increased uncertainty in the international system. An important question is how related technologies are regulated. In this respect, we can see a difference between democracies and authoritarian regimes. The latter ones use such technologies it to collect data and use it as a source of influence both abroad and at home. We can already hear concepts such as digital-authoritarianism being used. It means using technology to supress, monitor and persuade people.

The PhD candidate finds digital authoritarianism to be an interesting concept. China is leading in this regard as we have observed massive surveillance and extensive control of citizens. For example, China has developed facial recognition technologies and it is estimated that around 300 000 000 cameras with facial recognition technology have been installed around the country. There are also estimations that this technology could be based on ethnic recognition, which might help explain why so many Uyghurs have been captured by the regime. The regime collects data without any privacy rules and recent data shows that China surpasses the USA in terms of financing the development of such technologies. This is also important in terms of China‘s influence abroad. It is not only about controlling the domestic population, it is about creating dependence on China. We will probably see more and more exports of these technologies to less democratic countries, Mr. Lingevičius notes.

The way forward for democratic countries is to create an opposing agenda to autocratic regimes that could be based on defining concrete rules, ensuring respect for fundamental human rights, privacy, promoting a multi-stakeholder approach. Furthermore, a pro-human rights approach to artificial intelligence needs to be developed. We already can see some action on the Council of Europe, the OECD is already asking for ethical developments of artificial intelligence, the European Commission is planning to present its legislative proposals on this topic by the end of April.

Panel 3: Interoperability of minds as key principle in hybrid defence

Moderator: Dr. Timo HELLENBERG, CEO and Founder, Hellenberg International Ltd (FIN)

Panel: Mr. Michael MALM, Swedish Armed Forces Defence Staff, Department of Total Defence (SWE)

Mr. Rasmus HINDREN, Head of International Relations, European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, Helsinki (FIN)

Mr. Michael RÜHLE, Head, Hybrid Challenges and Energy Security Section, Emerging Security Challenges (ESC) Division (NATO HQ)

  1. Malm points out that we are not yet as interoperable as we should be. The cultural differences between close neighbouring countries remain large in some cases. Sometimes, we are using the same words but saying different things. We are very pre-occupied with what Russia is doing instead of focusing on what we want to achieve. He concludes that it is important to ensure that the private sector is integrated in the process of developing defence strategies and defending.
  2. Hindren believes that while most of the responsibility for countering hybrid threats lies at the national level, very often, taking issues to the international arena is very recommendable. Interoperability as such is not the end goal but rather a means to more joint responses.

He explains that there are several ways to approach international cooperation to countering hybrid threats. One of them is by separating resilience and responding to crises. They are interrelated but separating them help to understanding certain phases and actions of different countries. This is in line with the concept of hybrid deterrence which is like the classical model of deterrence based on the three pillars of deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment.

Thus, in terms of resilience, it makes sense to exchange information because a common informational awareness is a prerequisite for joint responses. Sharing best practices is critical because of the nature of hybrid influencing attacks. Mr. Hindren explains that they are relatively cheap to execute and hard to detect, therefore, they are commonly replicated across a number of countries. The faster we can get the information about the extent and type of attack, the better is the opportunity for other countries to adapt their mechanisms, including intelligence gathering. Both of these factors feed into the need for early warning capabilities. The more we know about the threat environment, the more we hear about our neighbouring states’ experience, the more likely we are to get an early warning on a gradually building crisis. Moreover, in terms of resilience, developing capabilities jointly is a feature of increasing interoperability since it is based on shared priorities and shared requirements.

In terms of responses, Mr. Hindren finds that coherent strategic communication is key. A message can be amplified if it is supported by a broader international framework. The same goes for countermeasures. An obvious example is if it is decided to impose sanctions on a hybrid aggressor, it is easy to calculate the most effective solutions – is it better when a country of 5 million people imposes sanctions, or a block of 500 million people imposes them?

The head of the Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats explains that the elements for effective deterrence and responses include capabilities, communication (internal and external), resolve, agility, attribution, solidarity, unity, coherence. Capabilities to counter and aggressor are obviously required. Communicating to your own population and to the aggressor is very important. Hybrid influencing is often a slow burning process and takes place under the radar, so it is really difficult to get a sense of urgency and the resolve needed for the effective responses. Agility is difficult already within a national framework because what we face are cross-governmental and cross-societal threats, but it is even more difficult when there is a need to coordinate positions between 27 member states. This is why mechanisms for decision-making and situational awareness are already overdue to be constructed and exercised. Attribution is usually a part of an effective response and that can be amplified if it is done in an international format. Mr. Hindren believes that solidarity needs no further explaining. Next, he points out that unity is not just an abstract term because unanimity is required for decision making both in the EU and NATO. Currently, there are discussions about whether the unanimity rule could be waived in some cases. Looking purely from the perspective of the threat environment, this would be a good approach to explore. Finally, with coherence, he explains that it is related to how we understand the situation and the tools at our disposal. There has to be a coherent approach to analysing the situation and related decision-making.

The EU has the potential to be a comprehensive actor to counter hybrid threats, but its institutions are not yet geared towards crisis response especially in a hybrid threat environment. There is too much focus on being reactive instead of pro-active, Mr. Hindren concluded.

  1. Rühle accents that countering hybrid threats has moved to the top of the security agenda of many countries and many institutions. He finds it to be unsurprising because we have witnessed an increase in malign activities in the grey zone. This makes finding effective responses a strategic necessity. Given the nature of the mostly non-military, non-kinetic and non-attributable activities involved, countering them requires seamless cooperation between institutions. The question is – do all the players really think from the same perspective? The NATO representative points out that if you take a quick glance at the literature, you realize that they do not – there is a considerable confusion in applying the term ‘hybrid threats’.

According to him, hybrid means a combination of two or more tools or actions. Hybrid activities are not all the same, as countries differ, so hybrid activities differ and our responses must acknowledge that. Even small and almost non-existential hybrid activities can be very dangerous and, according to Mr. Rühle, everyone in Europe is in some form a victim of malign hybrid activities. The fact that states have different views of them does not necessarily stand in the way of finding common responses to hybrid threats. We have to learn how to work in the grey area and we are still in the beginning. It is the private sector that is both targeted and also that produces most of the means that we use to defend. Therefore, partnership between public and private sectors is very important, he emphasises.

So how can we ensure that we have a common understanding of the threat and a common response? Mr. Rühle presented nine commandments:

  1. Be precise. Hybrid always means a combination of two or more activities. We should not use the term when we are describing a cyber-attack or a simple disinformation effort, only when several tools are applied together is the word ‘hybrid’ really appropriate. Calling everything we do not like ‘hybrid’ is a semantic overstretch that only leads to confusion.
  2. Do not generalize. For many analysts, Ukraine in 2014 was a textbook example of contemporary hybrid approaches but Ukraine was far more vulnerable to Russian activities than most other countries. Generalizing Ukraine into a template for future Russian hybrid activities elsewhere could be a self-deceiving exercise. Every hybrid case is a sui generis case even if there might be parallels between them.
  3. Be actor-specific. It is very seductive to over-conceptualize hybrid threats but real world malign hybrid activities are being perpetrated by real state and non-state actors with real strategic interests. And as these actors and interests differ, so do their hybrid activities and so must our responses.
  4. Look at interests. Much of the current debate is about tools – cyber, disinformation, election interference and so on – but the overarching question must not be about the adversaries tools, rather, it must be about intentions. Only when we know these intentions can we have effective responses that target those intentions. Even better, knowing the adversaries’ interests may even allow some accommodation that reduces the chances of hybrid attacks in the first place.
  5. Do not mirror-image in trying to find ways to deter hybrid campaigns. For example, some believe that by consistently naming and shaming the hybrid perpetrator you could deter the hybrid perpetrator from future attacks. That approach may work vis-a-vis most Western countries because Western countries are mindful of their reputation and public opinion. Other countries will simply deny that they are the culprit and rely on the low likelihood that their culpability can never be proven precisely.
  6. Share experiences. The exchange of best practices with like-minded countries is among the most important elements of fostering a common approach to hybrid threats. For instance, Australia’s example of dealing with Chinese influence campaigns can be as useful as Israel’s experience in dealing with non-state actors or Ukraine’s experience dealing with Russia. Countries are different and so, adopting certain laws might work in some countries and not others but if we exchange experiences, over time, a solid answer will arise on how to counter malign hybrid activities.
  7. Become more resilient. Deterrence is the centrepiece of a strategy to prevent military conflict. Resilience is also the key concept in dealing with hybrid threats. Resilience presumes that an attack will happen and hence the nation or alliance must be able to take a hit and bounce back. Resilience requires investments in cyber defence, protection of critical infrastructure, public education. It is the most useful paradigm for coping with a world where intrastate competition increasingly takes place in the grey zone.
  8. Do not be alarmist. The obsession with hybrid warfare has led to alarmism in the Western strategic community that is counterproductive. Most hybrid campaigns are cases of trial and error. And many of them fail. Hence, by hyping hybrid campaigns into a miracle strategy in the context of undermining the deterrent provided by the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States for example, the Western community hands a hybrid aggressor like Russia a cheap victory.
  9. Do not accept hybrid as the new normal. Largely due to technical developments such as cyber and social media, hybrid activities have become a constant feature of international politics. There is no law of nature that would make this unpleasant situation normal or inevitable. Most hybrid actors have a face and an address, they can be found, punished, deterred, they can also be engaged. So if the West stays united and learns how to get better at meeting threats in the grey zone it can blunt the hybrid weapon even if it may never completely eradicate it.

Panel 4: Topic Changing global power balance and its consequences for the Baltic Region

Moderator: Dr. Hans BINNENDIJK, former NSC Senior Director for Defense Policy, Tufts University, PhD in International Affairs (USA)

Panel: Amb. Dr. Žygimantas PAVILIONIS, Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Lithuanian Parliament (LTU)

Mr. Marko MIHKELSON, Member of the Parliament, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee (EST)

Rep. Don BACON, U.S. House of Representatives, House Baltic Caucus Co-Chair, (USA)

Mr. Heinrich BRAUSS, Senior associate fellow, German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), (GER)

Ž. Pavilionis believes that the West was able to contain Russia to some extent, but this was limited because we were on the defensive. We had some ideas on how to contain Russia, but we had not developed a comprehensive strategy on how to push back, spread our values and defend democracies in the region. The member of parliament points out how the Magnitsky Act was signed in the US and Europe, sanctions on Russia were finally imposed after the annexation of Crimea, while also observing that the revolution in Belarus is an inspiring phenomenon that we need to capitalize on and stating that we need to focus on new and free elections in Belarus this year because the worst outcome of this revolution would the annexation of Belarus by Russia. Mr. Pavilionis called to defend democracies in Georgia and Ukraine because these countries are experiencing severe democratic backsliding. Furthermore, according to him, we must contain oligarchs, restore democracies and invite these countries to join NATO, though, of course, with conditionality. In parallel, the member of Lithuania’s parliament proposes that we could do the same with EU enlargement, starting work toward a democratic and European Russia by first attacking the money fuelling the regime.

In terms of democratic transition in Eastern European countries, the EU and NATO should always have their plans and proceed, as history has shown that our weakness and failure to project NATO enlargement in part led to the occupation of Georgia and Ukraine. Mr. Pavilionis urges to create a situation whereby Russia withdraws troops from these areas. In regards to China, he notes that Lithuania expects that other countries will also withdraw from the 17 +1 format and that European countries will have a unified strategy and build embassies and communication channels around China – in Taiwan, South Kores etc.

A key takeaway pointed out by D. Bacon is that from looking at China, Russia and Iran, the US might be an indispensable country but there is no way the US can do everything alone and so, allies and partnerships are more important for it than ever before. Therefore, the US should not be reducing its presence in NATO and Europe. Mr. Bacon outlines that it is evident that the most threatened part of NATO is the Baltic States, and it is very important that we remove any ambiguity when it comes to commitments to the Baltic states – there must always be a NATO presence there.

The current situation in Belarus is very important to the future of our Baltic allies, he explains, adding that, furthermore, we need to do more for Ukraine, we need to help them to defend themselves and encourage them to continue on the West-oriented path, also doing the same with Georgia. He does not see Russia as only a regional power as it has a strategic nuclear capability that matches America’s and is, in some areas, more modernized. Russia has been involved in Venezuela, Cuba, Africa, as well as being are a cyber-threat globally, the US House of Representatives Baltic Caucus co-chair highlights.

  1. Brauss finds that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014 significantly altered the security alignment in NATO. According to him, the enhanced NATO presence in the Baltic states is the most visible element of this re-alignment. The alliance is now confronted with Russia’s destabilizing behaviour, the growth of China in terms of political power, economy and technological advantages, the increasing cooperation between China and Russia, the threat of terrorism and destabilization in NATO’s Southern periphery, cyber and hybrid threats, consequences of climate change. According to Mr. Brauss, NATO is currently working on a strategy for the alliance’s adaptation to the challenges of the upcoming decade, with the NATO Secretary-General summarizing the response to these challenges in three main imperatives: 1) staying strong militarily; 2) being united politically; 3) taking a broader approach globally. Balancing Russia’s policy of constant confrontation against Europe and the US requires the US’ extensive nuclear deterrence and presence in Europe. Mr. Brauss states that Europeans need to do much more for their own security because the US will probably focus more on the Indo-Pacific relations. Improving military mobility in Europe requires top level awareness and engagement in NATO, EU and European capitals.
  2. Mihkelson believes that the situation for the Baltic states today is incomparable to how it was 17 years ago when the Baltic States were still awaiting to be accepted into NATO. We have a NATO presence in the region. He emphasises the significance of this matter, though noting that it might still not suffice. We are entering a very turbulent time for the Western allies and maybe it is the first time when NATO allies have so many challenges on their plate. And they face not only challenges of asymmetric threats in the Middle East and terrorism, but also the increasing threats posed by very powerful state actors, such as China.

Mr. Mihkelson emphasises that China is growing and will be a prominent player for years to come. Meanwhile, Russia is not fading away – it might be economically quite weak, but it is a serious threat to smaller NATO allies. Of course, it is understandable that increased attention is placed upon the Indo-Pacific region by the US and even European countries, but we should not forget that Russia could try to use that window of opportunity. The Estonian member of parliament highlights that there is a struggle ongoing for the formation of a new set of rules of the international game, as indicated in the recent meeting in Alaska. Russia has demonstrated already that it can use these moments as opportunities in 2014 in Ukraine and 2008 in Georgia. We should not forget how Russia acted during the Chechen wars in the 1990s. These events demonstrated that Russia is ready to use conventional forces to achieve its geopolitical aims. This is why more NATO deterrence in the Baltic states and additional presence of US forces permanently in this region are needed.

In regard to the Arctic, the partnership between Russia and China is only tactical because, in reality, China does not need any strategic partner. Russia is important to China not as a military or strategic partner but as a pool of resources, especially with Siberia. The Arctic as a passage from East to West is increasingly important. There are talks by Macron that maybe EU countries can draw Russia closer to Europe and move it away from China but that would put the Baltic states in an extremely dangerous situation. Mr. Mihkelson concludes that it is important to pay attention to the Arctic, Russia’s military investment in increasing its presence there, and focus on how to enhance international cooperation to safeguard the Arctic.

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