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Russian aggression, Europe refugee crisis take center stage at CEPA Forum
Diplomatic Pouch / October 6, 2016

By Larry Luxner

The effort to contain Russian aggression amounts to nothing less than saving Western civilization — a goal first articulated by the founders of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), meeting eight years ago in a Warsaw basement.

Since then, said CEPA President Wess Mitchell, the organization has evolved into Washington’s leading think tank on Central Europe. Along the way, it also became the first U.S. institute to study the Kremlin’s manipulation of information.

Last week, Mitchell reiterated the threats facing the West as he inaugurated the 8th CEPA Forum with Antoni Macierewicz, Poland’s minister of national defense. Also offering opening remarks were Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s minister of foreign affairs and trade; Rokas Msiulis, energy minister of Lithuania; and Jan Hamácek, chairman of the Chamber of Deputies of the Czech Parliament.

The two-day event, held at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel and the Meridian International Center, attracted nearly 500 European officials and U.S. policy experts.

“What happens in the 1,000 miles of land between the Baltic and Black seas matters strategically for the United States,” said Mitchell. “For years, we told ourselves that Russia was in decline, destined to fade away or join the West. We prepared for an Asian century and a future without nuclear weapons. We dismantled 60 years of national intellectual capital, but the conventional wisdom was wrong and it has imperiled us all.”

In fact, said Mitchell, Putin has led Europe’s largest military buildup since the end of the Cold War, and that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to 10,000 deaths and 29,000 square miles of territory changing hands.

“Isolationism and pacifism are stirring in the largest countries of the West. The challenges we face are not the challenges we thought we would face,” he said. “Our challenge is to hold together Western civilization against a threat we told ourselves didn’t exist. It survived Stalin, Krushchev and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our job is to make sure it survives Vladimir Putin.”

Despite the West’s achievements since the Cold War’s end, said Hamácek, it is becoming increasingly difficult to adapt a methodological approach to solving Europe’s problems. “In many ways, we have become paralyzed,” he said. “We often tend to resign ourselves to pacifism. In our 24/7 news-cycle environment, governments often fail to see the forest for the trees.”

Macierewicz — highlighting the Russian threat to Poland and the Baltic states —lamented the fact that only five of NATO’s 28 member states spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense: Estonia, Greece, Great Britain, Poland and the United States.

“We must be ready to fight at any moment,” he said, citing the rise of Islamic terrorism and Moscow’s role in destabilizing Syria. “We’re fighting against our worst enemy, who knows our weaknesses. The sources of our power are our moral, traditional and ethical values.”

One reason terrorism threatens Europe today as never before is “the uncontrolled, unregulated flow of migrants” into the region, said Hungary’s Szijjártó, noting that last year, “around 1.5 million people marched through our countries, violating our borders, breaking our laws, occupying our public areas and sometimes even attacking our people.”

The CEPA Forum coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Visegrád Group, a bloc comprising the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Also known as the V4, the bloc has generally opposed EU quotas for the redistribution of Syrian and other refugees throughout the 28-member union.

“We had a very painful and terrible history — two devastating world wars, the Holocaust, revolution and misery. We were very happy we eventually got to safe shores,” said Szbolcs Takács, state secretary for EU Affairs at the Office of the Prime Minister of Hungary. “Make no mistake, we in Visegrád look at the EU and the history of European integration as one of the largest success stories of the 20th century.”

Since the bloc’s 1991 formation in Hungary, all four countries have managed to restructure their economic and political systems following decades of communist neglect.

“You can do that with leadership and good government. But what takes much longer are the changes that transform the mindset of society,” said Takács, adding that “25 years might be long in a marriage, but it’s very short in a historical perspective.”

Takács said the V4 has upheld the values of democracy—despite the EU’s threat to suspend Poland’s voting rights unless Warsaw restores the highest court’s ability to effectively review legislation. Hungary also faces criticism that it’s backsliding under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a fierce opponent of EU migrant quotas.

“This is not about governments and their wishes, it’s about people,” said Takács. “When the Hungarian people vote for a government and two years later realize it was not the best choice, whether they hate the prime minister or not, they don’t question the legitimacy of the elections.”

Slovakia, which holds the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, has profited more than any other country from European integration, said Lukas Parizek, state secretary of Slovakia’s Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs. He added that his country doesn’t want “any divisions or double standards” in Europe.

“Sometimes, political correctness leads to a dead end, but we always maintain an open dialogue and we believe our long-term strategic interests are the same,” he said.

Yet when it comes to refugees, Parizek noted, the V4’s options are limited.

“We want to address the root causes of migration and protect the EU’s borders. We all welcome the EU-Turkey deal and have contributed to development assistance with the funds we’ve established to tackle migration from Syria and Africa,” he said.

“But this is about long-term policy,” Parizek added. “Everybody knows there are many millions waiting not only in the Middle East but in Africa too. I think Europe can accommodate hundreds of thousands of them, but we’re talking about millions. Quite a number of them are not coming from Syria—and quotas and accepting everybody in the long run is really not a solution.”

Participants at the CEPA Forum heard from former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor at the Washington Post — both of whom spoke off-the-record at a panel titled “The World We Lost, and How To Win it Back.”

At yet another CEPA Forum panel, four military men — an Estonian, a Latvian, a Pole and an American — debated how the West, and specifically NATO, should deal with the increasing military and non-military threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The panel, moderated by CEPA senior fellow Janusz Bugajski, brought together Michael Carpenter, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia; Janis Kazocins, national security adviser to Latvia’s president; Tomasz Szatkowski, Poland’s deputy minister of national defense, and Lt. Gen. Riho Terras, commander-in-chief of the Estonian Defense Forces.

Kazocins noted that the generations of Europeans who lived through the horrors of World War II are dying out — making the concept of war “almost conceivable” and therefore much more dangerous.

“We’ve forgotten what the EU was for: to stop the wars of the 20th century from repeating themselves,” he said. “If we forget that, then we are in deep trouble.”

The Latvian official noted that while Russia is clearly capable of occupying the three Baltic states “on very short notice,” he doubts whether it actually intends to do so.

“But that can change in the blink of an eye. Russia’s aims are quite different in the Baltics than they are in Ukraine,” he warned. “From their point of view, Ukraine is the little brother that wants to be close to Big Brother. But the Baltic states were always seen as part of the West, even during Soviet times. The aim there is much more likely to make us into client states — maybe still members of NATO and the EU, but following a foreign policy in conjunction with that dictated by the Kremlin.”

Yet Crimea and Ukraine’s Donbas are not necessarily models for what Putin might do in eastern Latvia, which — like Estonia — has a substantial Russian-speaking minority that could be used to undermine the state. Meanwhile, he said, the Kremlin utilizes information warfare to create an impression of inevitability; no matter what the Baltic states do, they will eventually “go back to the fold of Mother Russia.”

Estonia’s Terras agreed, though in a way he said Putin’s adventures in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have inadvertently served as a wakeup call for all three Baltic nations.

“This is not only bad weather; it is climate change,” he said. “It has changed NATO’s mindset. I think that’s the one place where Putin completely miscalculated, because I don’t think Putin expected unanimous decisions in Wales and Warsaw.”

He stressed that, given Russia’s heavy investments in nuclear capability, NATO “should still put a lot of emphasis on the nuclear deterrence, and in that regard, the UK’s decision to build nuclear submarines is very important.”

Indeed, suggested Szatkowski, “we will have to relearn some lessons from the past. We cannot underestimate the nuclear dimension. The Russians are lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. We have to reach out with some efforts to provide verification measures.”

To that end, NATO’s 2014 Summit in Warsaw saw the unveiling of measures “to enhance both the deterrence and defense of the alliance,” according to Carpenter. In his talk, the Pentagon official speculated that Putin might become even more aggressive as Russia’s oil export-dependent economy continues to deteriorate.

“Russian leaders have undertaken nuclear saber-rattling over the last couple of years. All of this combines to create a threat of a revanchist Russia that challenges the very basic norms of the international order the way it’s operated since the end of the Second World War,” said Carpenter. “Within NATO, I think our actions have spoken very clearly about how seriously we take the threat.”

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