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)
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.
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.
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)
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.‘
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.
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.
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)
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.
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:
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.
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.