August 2, 2018
The Atlantic Council Stands with Latvia - and Always Will
By Damon Wilson
We are surprised and disappointed to see that record ignored. Recent reports have suggested that the Atlantic Council is allowing itself to be influenced by those who do not have the best interests of Latvia at heart. Such claims are misplaced and impugn the good work of our team.
Atlantic Council staff are among the most outspoken and most consistent advocates for the Baltic countries. Our publications, events, media appearances, and ground-breaking digital forensics work have sought to inform Washington policy makers of the threats facing the Baltic nations from Moscow and argue for strengthening America’s commitment to defend our friends in the region. The team associated with our institution has probably done more than any other to drive home the nature of the threat posed by a revisionist Kremlin, the breadth of tools used in this hybrid war, and the best means to defend our societies.
We have a proud track record of work on and with Latvia.
Our Digital Forensic Research Lab works extensively in Latvia, as part of its mission to identify, expose, and explain disinformation. In fact, our #BalticBrief has coordinated and corroborated previous reporting by Re:Baltica and our efforts to build capacity across local, independent media with open source analysis have been conducted in partnership with Re:Baltica. We will provide the same quality of rigorous and dispassionate reporting to guard against foreign interference ahead of Latvian elections on October 6.
We’re proud to have three Atlantic Council team members based at the NATO Center of Excellence in Riga, and we’re also proud to have two staff members who are Latvian citizens.
We partnered with the Latvian Foreign Ministry during its EU Presidency to put a spotlight on the Eastern Partnership and help develop a transatlantic strategy for Europe’s East. As a capstone to this effort, we organized a major conference featuring Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs as a speaker. The Council also partnered with the Latvian Ministry of Defense to develop ideas for enhancing Baltic maritime security, as part of our decade-long program to bolster Nordic-Baltic security.
In February of last year, we hosted a private dinner welcoming the ambassador of Latvia, Andris Teikmanis, followed by a visit by Latvia’s Minister of Defense, Raimonds Bergmanis, that June. Just this April, the Atlantic Council hosted a dinner in honor of the US-Baltic summit, where President Raimonds Vejonis spoke, alongside his counterparts from Lithuania and Estonia. At this event, National Security Advisor McMaster delivered the clearest administration statement to date of the threat posed by Russia. During the Baltic Presidents’ White House visit, I made the case for a stronger US strategy for the region.
Working with former US Ambassador to Latvia Cathy Bailey, who is also a member of our Ambassadorial Advisory Council, we have hosted interparliamentary groups from Latvia, including in the immediate aftermath of the US presidential elections to help demonstrate that the US commitment to Baltic defense and NATO’s Article Five remained sacrosanct. Rihards Kols, a Latvian member of parliament from the National Alliance, serves as one of the Atlantic Council’s extraordinary Millennium Leadership Fellows and recently published a piece with us outlining how NATO can meet Russia’s hybrid warfare challenge.
This level and breadth of engagement with our allies is routine at the Council.
The criticism of us has focused on meetings with Latvia’s Harmony party (Saskaņa), and its leaders, who are on the political left and are regarded as sympathetic to Moscow. Team members at the Council have met the Mayor of Riga Nils Ušakovs both in Riga and Washington, as well as Harmony’s parliamentary faction chair Janis Urbanovičs. Harmony is the largest political party in Latvia; we want to engage with everyone in the country and excluding any party would be short-sighted. It doesn’t mean we agree with everything they say, any more than we agree with everything other political parties say either. That’s not the point. We are nonpartisan at home and abroad.
When I worked at the National Security Council (NSC), there were concerns after Harmony placed first in parliamentary elections and was poised to help form the new government. In fact, I and most of my colleagues had not met any of the party leaders at that time and were concerned about the role they might play in a NATO ally government. Upon leaving government and joining the Council, I believed it important that we get to know some of these key actors who the Latvian electorate continue to reward with significant shares of the vote. After all, those were Latvian citizens who showed significant support to this political group.
Our promise to stand with our allies means that we engage with actors across the political spectrum within our partner countries, Latvia included. We aim not only to advance the transatlantic alliance within the United States, but also to promote the value of engagement with America amongst our allies. That means talking with relevant actors from all sectors and across the political spectrum, including those outside the Euro-Atlantic community. Promoting engagement with the alliance means, sometimes, convincing the most ardent sceptics. If we only spoke to those that already agreed with everything we believe, we’d be failing at our task.
To this end, Atlantic Council team members have participated in the Baltic Forum organized by Janis Urbanovičs in Riga, which also convenes key Russian participants. The Council, however, has not proposed partnering on the Baltic Forum, as Re:Baltica suggests. Rather, our team members – with the encouragement of some Latvian officials – considered the merits of developing a US-Russia track II process in Latvia with the support of both the Latvian national government and the Riga municipal government. This was done in the spirit of the Council’s long-term desire to foster greater stability and security in the region, in the tradition of Strobe Talbott’s Northern European Initiative in 1998 and even earlier comparable efforts in Latvia. The Council team ceased any efforts to develop this effort after the Foreign Ministry declined to participate. The Council in fact already has a cooperative effort underway with the Primakov Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) and regularly host visiting Russians in Washington; we are not in need of another channel.
The Atlantic Council, however, has not wavered in its support of the transatlantic alliance. At a time in Washington when NATO has fallen out of favor with some, we have worked tirelessly to promote a positive vision of the alliance, demonstrating to policymakers and our fellow citizens why NATO is so important for our own interests, and how much our allies, Latvia included, contribute to our own national security.
Claims that we are influenced by forces seeking to weaken NATO or the United States’ commitment to Latvia not only run counter to our current body of work, but seemingly ignore our team members’ historic support for the enlargement of NATO to the Baltics in the 1990s – indeed, the support of many in our organization for Baltic nationhood that goes back to our foundation in 1961.
Our long-time senior fellow Robert Nurick was among the first in Washington to argue for NATO enlargement to the Baltics. Current Atlantic Council board members and staff, including President and CEO Fred Kempe, Ambassador Daniel Fried, Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, and Board Director Sally Painter, were instrumental in supporting enlargement, at a time when such support was far from assured. We as individuals also played key roles in advancing visa-free travel for Latvians and others in the region to the United States and supporting Latvia’s entry into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In fact, because of this track record, Sally Painter, was invited by other board directors to join the Council’s board, and we are proud of her leadership on issues central to our mission.
I had the pleasure to play supporting roles during my time at NATO and at the NSC, including supporting Secretary General Lord Robertson at the Prague Summit in 2002 during which Latvia was invited to become an ally and including managing President Bush’s historic visit to Riga in 2005. I also had the responsibility at the NSC to inform the Latvian Ambassador that the US government would be invoking the Patriot Act (Section 311) for the first time against a Latvian financial institution in 2005. We at the Council have a long track record of having frank, tough conversations with our Latvian allies with the aim to make our alliance stronger.
Our staff members, led by Ambassador John Herbst and Dr. Anders Aslund, have helped educate Washington on the nature of the threat from Moscow, including using illicit financial means. Ambassador Herbst’s team, of which Anders Aslund is a member, conceived of and published a report series on The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses, exposing Russian efforts to influence political parties and actors in Western democracies. Aslund’s own reputation as a top expert familiar with Eastern European economies and as someone who has consistently exposed Russian corruption is strong and of many years standing. Last month alone, the Atlantic Council published his work on “How the United States Can Combat Russia’s Kleptocracy” and “Russia’s Interference in the US Judiciary.” He also has had a long career working with Latvia specifically, including serving as a member of the International Baltic Economic Commission and working with former Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis to write the book How Latvia Came Through the Financial Crisis (2011).
Buzzfeed and Re:Baltica have suggested that a paper Dr. Aslund prepared in his private capacity raises questions about the Council’s transparency. In this case, Aslund accepted a private assignment with no affiliation with the Council to research and prepare a paper that attempts to provide a baseline of developments and reforms in Latvia’s banking sector. All Latvian-owned banks have been excluded from correspondent banking in US dollars, which is a serious challenge for Latvia.
Consistent with Council conflict of interest rules, Aslund disclosed the outside income and prepared the paper with no Council support or involvement. Contrary to what has been reported, an Atlantic Council board member did not “commission” this report for Dr. Aslund or the funder in question. The board member did introduce Dr. Aslund to the private entity but was not involved in the development or funding of this report.
The Council is proud of its work and its sponsors. To ensure its integrity, first, the Council follows a strict policy on Intellectual Independence. When writing in external publications, posting to social media, and speaking to media on issues related to their work, Council staff are free to identify themselves as affiliated with the Council, but should make clear that their views represent their personal opinions, not council positions. External publications by staff members are not subject to Council editorial review.
Second, we follow a Policy on Donor Acceptance and Disclosure in which the Atlantic Council publicly acknowledges all its donors who give $250 or more in an annual Honor Roll of Contributors and on our website, something for which the Council has earned a 4-star rating from Charity Navigator. Third, we have a conflict of interest policy for all of our team members. They must not have, or appear to have, a financial or other interest that is disloyal, disruptive, or damaging to the Atlantic Council or its mission. They may engage in consulting assignments outside of their role with the Council so long as they disclose them in advance and receive approval.
Not everyone will be happy with everything we do or who we meet with. That is the point of an organization that aims to make a real policy difference within the United States and whose staff champions our allies. What should never be questioned, however, is the Atlantic Council’s steadfast commitment to stand with our friends. Political winds change frequently, but the Atlantic Council has always been, and will continue to be, an unwavering voice in favor of international cooperation and the transatlantic alliance. When the United States makes commitments to its friends, it stands by them, and so do we.
Damon M. Wilson is Executive Vice President of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @DamonMacWilson. #StrongerWithAllies