Posts Tagged ‘Estonia’

Report From the Cyberwar Front Lines — And the West’s inability to pre-empt cyberstrikes

December 30, 2017

Estonia’s former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves warns the West to harden defenses against cyberattack and makes the case for a universal electronic ID.

Stanford, Calif.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves was president of Estonia for 10 years, but he’s decidedly unpresidential when I enter his compact office at Stanford University. He grapples grumpily with a pack of Nicorette, struggling to extract the gum that will soothe his addiction. “These packets are so childproof that a 63-year-old can barely open them,” he complains, before popping a piece into his mouth and chomping on it with almost audible relief.

Having retired from politics in 2016, Mr. Ilves is now a visiting fellow at Stanford, where he studies information technology and cybersecurity, subjects with which he developed a deep familiarity as president of his charming but vulnerable Baltic country. While in office he led an administrative revolution that made Estonia’s perhaps the world’s most high-tech government. He also contended with a massive 2007 cyberattack, believed to be from Russia, after the government decided to move a Soviet war memorial in Tallinn, the capital.

Report From the Cyberwar Front Lines

Minutes into our conversation, Mr. Ilves cites Leon Panetta, who as defense secretary in 2012 warned of a “cyber Pearl Harbor,” an attack on the U.S. information infrastructure. “The shutting down of a Ukrainian power plant in 2016, and again this year through cyber operations, has shown,” Mr. Ilves says, “that Panetta’s concerns were hardly unwarranted.” Is that really comparable to Pearl Harbor? “If you can shut down a power plant with a cyberattack—something that once was doubted—then you can do the same on a much wider scale.”

Mr. Ilves’s signature worry is about the West’s inability to pre-empt cyberstrikes. “One can do considerable damage to national security and the private sector without disabling infrastructure,” he notes. He cites as examples the 2015 hacking of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which compromised the records of 23 million federal employees, and the Equifax breach this year in which the financial records of 145 million Americans were stolen.

If the American public isn’t alarmed, he says, it is because many of us still “think theft—be it your financial data or your personal records, or even Hillary Clinton’s emails—seems less ‘real’ because it is digital.” Forty-five years ago, “people sure got upset about the Watergate break-in, which was physical. But when Hillary’s emails are hacked and ‘doxxed’ ”—he refers here to her campaign staff, including John Podesta, whose communications were published on the internet—“we just want to read what’s in them.”

The Russian attack that hit the Democrats in 2016—carried out by a group known as APT 28 or “Fancy Bear”—was part of a widespread campaign, with casualties across the West. Mr. Ilves says it hit “ministries, political parties, and candidates in the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Ukraine, Italy and France.” Presumably they stole the contents of those servers. In the case of French President Emmanuel Macron, “they also doxxed him.” And APT 28 is “but one of numerous such groups from Russia alone.” Iran has also been active in cyberespionage, and hackers affiliated with the Chinese army have penetrated the servers of “militaries as well as intellectual property in companies the world over.”

So dire and widespread is the threat that Mr. Ilves advocates the formation of an alliance against cyberwarfare. After the 2007 attack on Estonia, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization set up a cyberdefense center in Tallinn. But “in the digital era,” Mr. Ilves says, “physical distance and national boundaries have lost their relevance.” NATO is “constrained by troop logistics and bomber ranges” and excludes far-flung democracies from Japan to Australia or Uruguay. Yet their information “is as vulnerable as any in Eastern Europe. Their democracies and elections are no less under threat than the U.S. or Germany.”

A big part of the problem is weak defenses. The purloined OPM files, Mr. Ilves points out, weren’t even encrypted. Equifax was also inattentive to security. The company “was told four months before they were hacked of the vulnerability that the hackers exploited. They simply did nothing.” The WannaCry hack in May, which the U.S. government attributes to North Korea, laid bare a simple deficiency: obsolete software. “WannaCry attacked Windows XP,” for which Microsoft ended security updates in 2014. “Those attacked were simply running old software.” More broadly, governments and companies “have to realize that cybersecurity is a running cost; an operational expense, not a capital one. It’s not like a car that you buy, and figure you won’t need another for five years. Software needs constantly to be updated, renewed, replaced.”

How would a cyber-NATO come about? The question prompts Mr. Ilves to delve into the history of NATO. In 1948, the British foreign secretary was Ernest Bevin, “a hard-left, Labour Party minister. He looked at social democratic governments falling like dominoes, in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and he wrote to Harry Truman saying, ‘We need to do something.’ ” NATO was born, “out of recognizing that these countries were all falling due to Soviet-organized coups d’état.”

The comparable problem today, Mr. Ilves says, is the “sowing of enough distrust regarding democracy and free and fair elections that we no longer believe in them, or in the news.” Who will be the 21st-century Bevin? The loquacious Mr. Ilves is lost for an answer. Perhaps he should have seized the opportunity when he was president.

Instead he is a private citizen of Estonia, visiting the U.S. on a J-1 nonimmigrant visa, which allows foreign nationals to take part in exchange programs on the understanding that they leave when the term is over. He tells me this with an almost grim precision, for he used to be an American citizen and would love to live in the U.S. again. The child of Estonian refugees who came to the U.S. when he was 3, he gave up his American citizenship in 1993 in order to become free Estonia’s second ambassador to Washington. “I could probably get a green card if I really pushed for it,” he says, “because my oldest son is an American citizen. He’s my anchor adult.”

Mr. Ilves never ventures out in public without a bow tie. To look at him you’d never know that he was responsible for Estonia’s transformation from post-Soviet provincialism to the most digitally administered country in the world. In his postpresidential life, Mr. Ilves has become a vigorous evangelist for Estonia’s brand of digital governance, pressing the model on anyone who’ll listen—including committees of the U.S. Congress. It’s hard to name a politician in the Western world who knows more about the cyberworld.

Mr. Ilves wants America to be more like Estonia. Since 2001, every Estonian has had a digital ID card with a chip, as well as a code number known only to the individual. That enables a “two-factor authentication for every transaction, requiring your chip and your code,” he tells me. He scoffs at the more common practice of requiring an email or username plus a password. “All identities based on this ‘one-factor’ model,” he says, “are hackable through brute force. You simply need enough computing time, and really not that much of it.”

If he were appointed America’s digital czar, he’d “implement a digital ID system for everyone, but do it at the state level.” He’d expect political opposition. Estonia logs its residents’ digital identities in a national registry, but “citizens in Anglo-Saxon countries regard that sort of thing as Orwellian. They say that this would diminish privacy. But where’s the logic in it?” The state, he contends, is “already validating who you are in your passport and your driver’s license.”

There’s no doubt that many Americans would find Mr. Ilves’s ideas uncongenial, particular his belief that the successful digitization of a society can happen only if digital IDs are mandatory and universal. “It is a matter of behavioral economics,” he says. “Everyone must have one. They need not use it, but they need to have one. Because, if the digital ID isn’t universal, digital services will not be developed.” Where digital IDs aren’t mandatory—including most European Union countries—“neither the public sector nor the private has made efforts to invest in these services. Administration remains a ‘paper’ affair, and banks don’t invest in genuinely secure banking.” In most EU countries without a mandatory card, “the e-ID uptake is 15% to 25%. Why bother developing a service if 75% to 85% of the population can’t even use it?”

Mr. Ilves also speaks of a “digital divide” in America between the “phantasmagoric, amazing world of the private sector, with augmented reality on your iPhone X, and all sorts of other wonderful, wonderful things,” and the way Americans interact with their government. “If you look at how you lead your life in this country—the standing in line for the Department of Motor Vehicles, or, in my case, registering my child for school—we’re in the 1950s.”

In that regard America has disappointed Mr. Ilves. “I came here to Silicon Valley for a year and a half to see the big things for myself. I did digitization in Estonia, and then I came to see the mecca. This is my hajj.” (He asks me to promise I’ll use the word “hajj”—pilgrimage—in the article.) But he’s disenchanted with the “Kaaba,” the sanctum sanctorum.

“In a 10-mile radius of my Stanford office,” he says, “you find the headquarters of Google, Apple, Facebook, Tesla, Palantir, PayPal,” as well as “thousands of unicorns”—startup companies valued at over $1 billion. Yet as a resident of Palo Alto, Mr. Ilves has to bring a paper copy of his electric bill to register his 14-year-old daughter for school. “Do you know,” he asks, “how easy it is to forge one of those bills?” When his Estonia-schooled daughter mastered English and was ready to join a class of native speakers, Mr. Ilves “had to sign physically two papers giving her permission to do so, take one to her high school, and drop the other off at the school district office.” His parents, who settled in New Jersey in 1953, would have “felt right at home.”

There is a tension between Mr. Ilves’s two preoccupations—on the one hand, he wants ubiquitous digitization; on the other, he worries about devastating cyberattacks. Isn’t the latter a reason to be wary of the former? If the OPM records were all on paper in vast buildings full of file cabinets, might the inefficiency be a price worth paying for relative security? No, Mr. Ilves says. “Done right, you have far greater security” with digitization. “The problem with the digitization of all forms of processes, from infrastructure to the OPM to Equifax, is a lack of attention to security.”

Has he had a chance to talk to Silicon Valley’s leaders about his astonishment at the slow pace with which American government has digitized? “My astonishment,” he says, “has been growing by the day, so I haven’t expressed it that much to people.” But there is an informal Estonian gripe group in Silicon Valley. “There are several of us who do things here,” including Teleport founder and former Skype executive Sten Tamkivi, “who travels back and forth. We just sit around and trade stories about America, saying, ‘I can’t believe you have to do this on paper.’ ”

“We call it an Estonian mafia,” he says. With that, and with a grin, he reaches again for his Nicorette.

Mr. Varadarajan is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Appeared in the December 30, 2017, print edition.


Indian court acquits 35 from anti-piracy ship of weapons charges

November 27, 2017


Image result for seaman guard ohio, ship, photos


An Indian court on Monday acquitted 35 men, including several from Britain, Estonia and Ukraine, of illegal possession of arms while they were on a US-operated anti-piracy boat.

The six Britons, three Ukrainians, 14 Estonians and 12 Indians were given five-year jail terms by a lower court in southern India’s Tamil Nadu state in January 2016.

The Indian coast guard intercepted the privately run MV Seaman Guard Ohio off the coast of Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu in October 2013.

Semi-automatic weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition were found.

The crew were charged with not having proper paperwork to carry weapons in Indian waters, but India has faced intense diplomatic pressure over the case ever since.

R. Subramaniya Adityan, a lawyer for 19 of the crew, said after Monday’s hearing at the Madras High Court that the men “will be released after the court order reaches the prison officials on Tuesday”.

Another lawyer, R. Arumuga Ram, told AFP that efforts were being made to get the men released as early as Monday night. “Otherwise, (we) will ensure to release all of them by 6:00 am tomorrow,” he added.

But Indian authorities are still able to appeal, which could prevent the foreigners from leaving India.

Twenty-three of the men are detained in Chennai’s Puzhal prison, while the remaining 12 are at Palayamkottai Central Prison in Tirunelveli.

– Pirate guards –

The MV Seaman Guard Ohio was chartered to protect ships crossing the Indian Ocean at a time of increased risk from pirate attacks.

The six Britons were former soldiers working as guards on the vessels.

The 35, except the Ukrainian captain and one Briton, were released on bail in 2014 on condition that they stayed in Chennai.

An Indian court quashed the charges against the crew in July 2014, but the Supreme Court overturned that ruling the following year and ordered their trial which led to the prison terms.

US maritime security firm AdvanFort, which owns the Seaman Guard Ohio vessel, denied the charges, saying all firearms on board were legally purchased and properly documented.

The Estonian government in October summoned the Indian ambassador in Tallinn to complain about the slow pace of the case. Britain had also made approaches to India over the case.

In London, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said: “The government, from the prime minister down, has worked hard for over four years to support the men and their families and we share their happiness at the court’s decision to give a full acquittal to each of the men.”

Britain was “working with the Indian authorities to discuss the next steps. We will continue to offer the men and their families consular assistance for as long as it is needed”, they added.

Yvonne McHugh, partner of Billy Irving, told Britain’s Press Association news agency that she was “over the moon”.

“We are just waiting to hear how soon they’ll be home,” she said.

“I won’t be able to speak to him until he’s out of prison, we just want them home as soon as possible. I’m absolutely ecstatic and feel proud we’ve managed to do this after four years.”

The southern tip of India is close to major trading routes from Asia to Europe and many cargo ships have armed guards and vessels to deter pirates.


Indian policemen escort crew members of Sierra Leone-flagged ship Seaman Guard Ohio, outside a court in Tuticorin in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu October 18, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

Indian policemen escort crew members of Sierra Leone-flagged ship Seaman Guard Ohio, outside a court in Tuticorin in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu October 18, 2013.

Russian blockade of Syrian chemical attacks probe prevents chemical weapons watchdog of UN from bringing international criminals to account

November 25, 2017
“Those responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable…”


Syrians flee following a reported government airstrike in Hamouria, in the Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus. (AFP/file)

THE HAGUE: The head of the international chemical weapons watchdog said Friday that Russia’s veto of UN Security Council resolutions to extend the mandate of an investigation team that lays blame for chemical attacks in Syria “creates a gap which needs to be addressed by the international community.”

The mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, or JIM, set up by the UN and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) expired earlier this month after the Syrian government’s staunch ally Russia blocked efforts to extend its mandate.

© AFP/File / by Maria PANINA | This Syrian child was among the victims of a suspected sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhun on April 4, which a UN report has blamed on the regime of Bashar al-Assad

Russia has been highly critical of the JIM’s findings that the Syrian government used chlorine gas in at least two attacks in 2014 and 2015 and used the nerve agent sarin in an aerial attack on Khan Sheikhoun last April 4 that killed about 100 people and affected about 200 others.

The JIM also accused Daesh of using mustard gas in 2015 and again in September 2016 in Um Hosh in Aleppo.
OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu lamented the end of the JIM.
“It is unfortunate that the mandate of this mechanism is not extended and clearly that creates a gap which needs to be addressed by the international community,” he told The Associated Press.
Members of the OPCW’s Executive Council were scheduled to meet later Friday to debate their response to the report.
A draft decision put forward by the US, Colombia, Estonia and Saudi Arabia is expected to be discussed.
It calls for the council to demand that the Syrian government immediately stop using chemical weapons and to express “its strong conviction that those responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable,” according to a copy of the draft text seen by The Associated Press.
Executive Council decisions are generally adopted by consensus, but with the US and its allies at loggerheads with Russia and its supporters, it is likely to be put to a vote.
Russia and Iran also filed a draft decision for the council earlier this month calling for a “full scale, professional, and high quality investigation” in Khan Sheikhoun, including a site visit.
“There are serious differences of view on the issues that are being discussed because it’s somehow the extension of the conflict which is still underway in Syria,” Uzumcu said.
The OPCW has a fact-finding mission, which works to confirm allegations of chemical attacks in Syria, but does not apportion blame.
Uzumcu said that there are allegations of more than 80 different uses of chemicals as weapons over the last two years.
“The list is long,” he said.
Uzumcu said that mission will continue, including a visit to Damascus soon to look into Syrian government claims of attacks by fighters.
Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people standing
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet in Sochi, Russia, on November 22, 2017

Russia is hacking and harassing NATO soldiers, report says

October 6, 2017

The latest efforts by the Kremlin to disrupt NATO deployment include face-to-face harassment of soldiers using personal data. Some experts have said these tactics can easily turn deadly.

Soldiers of the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, prepare to drive Marder light tanks onto a train for transport to Lithuania

US and NATO alliance officials said they are concerned about reports that troops on NATO’s frontlines in the Baltic states and Poland have been personally confronted by strangers who possess personal details about them.

The Wall Street Journal reported Russia is using advanced surveillance techniques, including drones and covert antennas, to pull data from smartphones being used by soldiers deployed as part of the alliance’s “enhanced Forward Presence” (eFP) in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The WSJ story includes personal accounts of military personnel being approached in public by a person they believed was a Russian agent conveying personal details about them for purposes of intimidation.

Speaking at NATO headquarters, US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison said the matter is being looked into. “We will definitely be bringing it up,” Hutchison pledged. One of the Army officers who told the WSJ his phone had been hacked was an American lieutenant colonel who feared the Russians were tracking him with it.

Belgien US-Botschafter bei der NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison (T. Schultz)US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison says she’ll be raising the issue of Russian hacking of allied troops.

“We have seen attempts to undermine troops deployed in this part of our alliance, but our personnel are well-prepared to perform the mission at hand, despite these hybrid challenges,” a NATO military official explained. “The safety and security of our personnel is always a top priority for NATO, as well as for all contributing and host nations.”

The official, who was not authorized to give his name, emphasized that “all necessary measures” are being taken “protect the mission” and networks, and that personnel are being trained to be vigilant “as part of their daily routines, including online.”

From The Wall Street Journal:


EU leaders look to digital future — High tech companies seen as “freeloaders of the modern world”

September 29, 2017


© AFP / by Alex PIGMAN | German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU’s most powerful leader, has indicated her support for French President Emmanuel Macron’s vision for the future of the bloc

TALLINN (AFP) – EU leaders will look to the bloc’s digital future at a summit in Tallinn on Friday, a day after debating wider plans unveiled by French President Emmanuel Macron to strengthen the union.Macron is expected to seek to persuade sceptical counterparts to overhaul tax rules so that more of the profits from Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google fall into Europe’s public coffers.

The proposal was part of a wider vision that the 39-year-old leader unveiled in a landmark speech in Paris on Tuesday, aimed at reviving a European project hurt by Brexit, populism and the migration crisis.

At dinner in the Estonian capital on Thursday, EU national leaders held a debate about Macron’s plans.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU’s most powerful leader, indicated her support for Macron’s new vision.

“There is a wide agreement between France and Germany when it comes to the proposals, although we must work on the details,” Merkel said.

The leaders discussed the ideas — over courses of flank steak, salmon and rabbit liver — “in a very constructive and positive atmosphere”, an EU source told AFP.

Based on the discussion, European Council President Donald Tusk, who coordinates EU summit meetings, “will consult with his colleagues in the coming two weeks and propose how to take the work forward”, the EU source added.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was also present for the summit, and was set to meet Merkel for a bilateral discussion on Friday as well as a visit to a NATO military base with Macron. Brexit negotiations, however, were not on the official menu.

– Silicon Valley ‘freeloaders’ –

The summit will discuss the opportunities and dangers of the digital economy, as well as cybersecurity.

The tax push by France, already backed by Germany, is part of a wider regulatory onslaught by the EU on Google and other US tech behemoths.

In his closely watched speech on Europe Tuesday, Macron thundered against high tech companies that had become the “freeloaders of the modern world”.

Macron’s proposal seeks to tax digital multinationals on the revenue generated in an EU country, instead of on profits booked in a low-tax EU HQ, often Ireland or Luxembourg.

So far about a dozen of the EU’s 28 member states have signed on to the idea, though many urge action to take place on a global level, instead of just in Europe.

But smaller EU states have expressed strong resistance to the idea, which they say will chase US tech giants from their shores, especially Ireland, which serves as a low-tax hub for Apple, Facebook and Google.

The hope is to have a formal proposal by December that would be made into law in 2018.

– Tax fights –

Britain meanwhile has warned that the new tax may anger Washington, which could abandon tax reform in retaliation.

Several national authorities in the EU have opened up tax fights with Google, Airbnb and other Internet giants.

The discussion on a digital tax is one component of a full day of talks by EU leaders that will also touch upon cybersecurity and the free flow of data in the Europe.

The two-day meeting in Estonia was originally intended to chart out a digital future for the continent but became upstaged by more down-to-earth issues including Brexit and the unexpected rise of the far right in Germany.

Estonia, which holds the EU’s six-month rotating presidency, bills itself as among the avant-garde of the digital revolution and called the talks to help bring the rest of the bloc up to speed.

Formerly part of the Soviet Union, Estonia has reinvented itself by taking a jump to the digital world, modernising and digitising all aspects of public life.

by Alex PIGMAN

Putin Attends Military Drills That Worry Russia’s Neighbors

September 18, 2017

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin is attending military maneuvers that have worried his country’s neighbors.

Putin, accompanied by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, attended the Zapad (West) 2017 drills on Monday at the Luzhsky range in western Russia, just over 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) east of Estonia’s border.

Russian and Belarusian troops are participating in the exercises that started last week.

Some nervous NATO members, including the Baltic states and Poland, have criticized an alleged lack of transparency about the war games and questioned Moscow’s intentions.

Russia and Belarus say the exercises, which run until Wednesday, involve 5,500 Russian and 7,200 Belarusian troops. Some NATO countries have estimated that up to 100,000 troops could be involved.

Moscow has rejected the claim and insists the maneuvers don’t threaten anyone.

Russia’s Zapad War Games Unnerve the West

September 13, 2017

TALLINN/VILNIUS — From planes, radars and ships in the Baltics, NATO officials say they are watching Russia’s biggest war games since 2013 with “calm and confidence”, but many are unnerved about what they see as Moscow testing its ability to wage war against the West.

NATO believes the exercises, officially starting on Thursday in Belarus, the Baltic Sea, western Russia and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, are already underway. It says they are larger than Moscow has publicized, numbering some 100,000 troops, and involve firing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.

Codenamed Zapad or “West”, NATO officials say the drills will simulate a conflict with the U.S.-led alliance intended to show Russia’s ability to mass large numbers of troops at very short notice in the event of a conflict.

“NATO remains calm and vigilant,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week during a visit to an Estonian army base where British troops have been stationed since March.

But Lithuania’s Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis was less sanguine, voicing widely-felt fears that the drills risk triggering an accidental conflict or could allow Moscow to leave troops in neighboring Belarus.

“We can’t be totally calm. There is a large foreign army massed next to Lithuanian territory,” he told Reuters.

Some Western officials including the head of the U.S. Army in Europe, Gen. Ben Hodges, have raised concerns that Russia might use the drills as a “Trojan horse” to make incursions into Poland and Russian-speaking regions in the Baltics.

The Kremlin firmly rejects any such plans. Russia says some 13,000 troops from Russia and Belarus will be involved in the Sept. 14-20 drills, below an international threshold that requires large numbers of outside observers.

NATO will send three experts to so-called ‘visitor days’ during the exercises, but a NATO official said these were no substitute for meeting internationally-agreed norms at such exercises that include talking to soldiers and briefings.

Moscow says it is the West that threatens stability in eastern Europe because the U.S.-led NATO alliance has put a 4,000-strong multinational force in the Baltics and Poland.

Wrong-footed by Moscow in the recent past, with Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its intervention in Syria’s war in 2015, NATO is distrustful of the Kremlin’s public message.

In Crimea, Moscow proved a master of “hybrid warfare”, with its mix of cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns and use of Russian and local forces without insignia.

One senior European security official said Zapad would merge manoeuvres across Russia’s four western military districts in a “complex, multi-dimensional aggressive, anti-NATO exercise”.

“It is all smoke and mirrors,” the official said, adding that the Soviet-era Zapad exercises that were revived in 1999 had included simulated nuclear strikes on Europe.

NATO officials say they have been watching Russia’s preparations for months, including the use of hundreds of rail cars to carry tanks and other heavy equipment into Belarus.

As a precaution, the U.S. Army has moved 600 paratroopers to the Baltics during Zapad and has taken over guardianship of the airspace of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which lack capable air forces and air defense systems.


Russia’s military show of force raises some uncomfortable questions for the alliance because NATO cannot yet mass large numbers of troops quickly, despite the United States’ military might, NATO officials and diplomats said.

NATO, a 29-nation defense pact created in 1949 to deter the Soviet threat, has already begun its biggest modernization since the Cold War, sending four battalions to the Baltics and Poland, setting up an agile, high-readiness spearhead force, and developing its cyberspace defenses.

But NATO has deliberately taken a slowly-slowly approach to its military build-up to avoid being sucked into a new arms race, even as Russia has stationed anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles in Kaliningrad, the Black Sea and Syria.

“The last thing we want is a military escalation with Russia,” said one senior NATO official involved in military planning, referring to Zapad.

In the event of any potential Russian incursion into the Baltics or Poland, NATO’s new multinational forces would quickly need large reinforcements. But a 40,000-strong force agreed in 2015 is still being developed, officials say.

Lithuania’s Karoblis said he hoped to see progress by the next summit of NATO leaders in July 2018.

Baltic politicians want more discretion given to NATO to fight any aggressor in the event of an attack, without waiting for the go-ahead from allied governments.

During Zapad, NATO is taking a low-key approach by running few exercises, including an annual sniper exercise in Lithuania. Only non-NATO member Sweden is holding a large-scale drill.

NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe James Everard told Reuters there was no need to mirror Zapad. “It’s not a competition,” he said during a visit to NATO forces in Latvia.

(Additional reporting by Gederts Gelzis in Latvia; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Nato chief: world is at its most dangerous point in a generation

September 9, 2017

Jens Stoltenberg warns of converging threats as Russia mobilises estimated 100,000 troops on EU’s borders

By  in Tapa
The Guardian

Image may contain: 5 people, people standing

Secretary general Jens Stoltenberg visits Nato battle group soldiers at Tapa military base in Estonia. Photograph: Raigo Pajula/AFP/Getty Images

The world is more dangerous today than it has been in a generation, the head of Nato has said, days before the mobilisation of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops on the EU’s eastern borders, and as a nuclear crisis grows on the Korean peninsula.

Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of the military alliance, said the sheer number of converging threats was making the world increasingly perilous.

Asked in a Guardian interview whether he had known a more dangerous time in his 30-year career, Stoltenberg said: “It is more unpredictable, and it’s more difficult because we have so many challenges at the same time.

“We have proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in North Korea, we have terrorists, instability, and we have a more assertive Russia,” Stoltenberg said during a break from visiting British troops stationed in Estonia. “It is a more dangerous world.”

From next Thursday, over six days, Russian and Belarusian troops will take part in what is likely to be Moscow’s largest military exercise since the cold war. An estimated 100,000 soldiers, security personnel and civilian officials, will be active around the Baltic Sea, western Russia, Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, without the supervision required under international agreement.

On the other side of the world, in the face of local protests, the South Korean government has deployed the controversial US Thaad missile defence system as it looked to counter potential future attacks from North Korea, which recently launched a ballistic missile over Japan, threatened the US Pacific territory of Guam and tested a possible thermonuclear device.

Donald Trump has threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on the North Koreans should further threats be made against the US, and kept up the threat on Thursday, saying he is building up US military power.

“It’s been tens of billions of dollars more in investment. And each day new equipment is delivered – new and beautiful equipment, the best in the world, the best anywhere in the world, by far,” Trump said. “Hopefully we’re not going to have to use it on North Korea. If we do use it on North Korea, it will be a very sad day for North Korea.”

Trump has ruled out talks with Pyongyang for the time being and Washington’s diplomatic focus is now on efforts to secure agreement at the United Nations for much tighter economic measures, including an oil embargo and possibly a naval blockade.

A South Korean marine participating in an exercise this week.
 A South Korean marine participating in an exercise this week. Photograph: Handout/South Korean Defense Ministry vi

Speaking during his visit to the Estonian military base in Tapa, a former Soviet Union airstrip about 75 miles (120km) from the border with Russia, Stoltenberg was coy when asked if he backed the US president’s bellicose threats to Pyongyang, blamed by some for exacerbating the current situation in south-east Asia.

“If I started to speculate about potential military options I would only add to the uncertainty and difficulty of the situation so I think my task is not to be contribute to that. I will support efforts to find a political, negotiated solution,” he said.

Pushed on whether he could even envision a military solution to the crisis in Korea, Stoltenberg said: “I think the important thing now is to look into how we can create a situation where we can find a political solution to the crisis.

“At the same time I fully understand and support the military message that has been implemented in the region by South Korea and to some extent Japan, as they have the right to defend themselves. They have a right to respond when they see these very aggressive actions. I also support the presence of US troops and capabilities in Korea.”

Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister whose 10 years in power were marked for his success in improving Norway’s environmental footprint, took over the role of Nato secretary general in 2014, forming a close working relationship with Barack Obama.

Soon after Trump’s election last year, however, in response to suggestions that the White House might back away from Nato, Stoltenberg made a pointed intervention highlighting the lives lost by the alliance’s members coming to the aid of the US after the 9/11 attacks. Trump had described Nato as obsolete during his election campaign.

In May, Stoltenberg took on the role of placater-in-chief after the US president used the occasion of the opening of Nato’s new building in Brussels, and the unveiling of a memorial to 9/11, to castigate 23 of the 29 Nato members for not spending enough on defence. A number of leaders were visibly startled by the nature and timing of the speech.

Asked this week whether Trump was the ideal person to unpick the current fraught security situation, Stoltenberg insisted the 29 Nato members were united within the alliance. “Donald Trump is the elected president of the United States,” he said. “And Nato is a collective alliance of 29 democracies. And that’s part of democracy, that different political leaders are elected.”

Donald Trump after pushing the Montenegrin prime minister, Dusko Markovic, aside as they walked through the Nato headquarters in Brussels in May.
 Donald Trump at the Nato headquarters in Brussels in May. He had just shoved the Montenegrin prime minister aside. Photograph: Etienne Laurent/EPA

He said he did not believe there was an imminent threat to Nato members, and that an increase in defence spending had strengthened the alliance in recent years.

Stoltenberg has completed a tour of the four battle groups stationed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, forming the Nato advanced forces defending the eastern borders.

Stoltenberg said the troops’ “defensive” mobilisation was a message to Russia that an attack on one Nato ally was an attack on all, and that he remained confident of the security of eastern Europe. But he expressed concern at Moscow’s imminent failure to live up to its international obligations for exercises involving more than 13,000 troops to be open to observers, including overflights. Some Baltic states estimate that about 100,000 Russian troops will be involved in this year’s exercise and Poland claims the Kremlin has requisitioned more than 4,000 train carriages to move military personnel west.

“Russia has said it is below 13,000. They briefed that on the Nato-Russia council a few weeks ago,” Stoltenberg said. “That was useful but at the same time we have seen when Russia says that an exercise has less than 13,000 troops that’s not always the case. We have seen that in Zapad 2009 and 2013 – the two previous Zapad exercises. There were many more troops participating.”

Stoltenberg said Nato had always offered up its exercises to scrutiny, “while Russia has not opened any exercise to open observation since the end of the cold war”.


EU countries urge caution on Turkey membership talks

September 7, 2017


© AFP/File / by Damon WAKE | Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have clashed over Turkey’s EU bid

TALLINN (AFP) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s call to end Turkey’s EU membership talks met resistance Thursday from many of her European partners, who warned against hasty action against a crucial ally.Merkel said during an election debate on Sunday that she would ask the EU to terminate Turkey’s accession talks, in a sharp escalation of an already bitter diplomatic spat.

A crackdown in Turkey in the wake of a failed coup last year has soured relations with the EU, and last week European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned Ankara was “withdrawing from Europe by giant steps”.

But on Thursday, Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser, whose country holds the bloc’s rotating presidency, said no decision would be made on the matter before a commission assessment of Turkey’s bid, expected early next year.

“I do not expect the European Union to make any decisions in that regard during this year,” he said at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pursued a purge of opponents since the coup in which which more than 50,000 people have been arrested and almost three times that number have lost their jobs, including teachers, judges, soldiers and police officers.

A dozen German journalists and activists have also been arrested, fraying relations with Berlin yet further.

– ‘No! No! No!’ –

In December, EU member states agreed that no new accession chapters would be opened until Ankara reversed course, but Turkey remains an important player for Europe on a number of key issues, not least the migrant crisis.

French President Emmanuel Macron told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini on Thursday he wanted to “avoid a rupture” with Turkey, which he called an “essential partner”.

Echoing this measured tone, Mikser said the EU should “tread very carefully” with Turkey, which is also an important member of NATO.

Most EU member states are also part of NATO.

“While discussing Turkey’s status as a candidate country we should also discuss the future relationship in all its aspects, and not make any hasty decisions without looking at these things comprehensively,” Mikser said.

Lithuania’s Linas Linkevicius gave an even more emphatic response, barking “No! No! No!” when asked if accession talks should be ended.

And Finland’s Foreign Minister Timo Soini added his voice to the calls for calm, saying dialogue was more useful than cutting ties.

“We know that there is problems with human rights in Turkey, but I am not in favour to cut the negotiations, because I think if we don’t talk with each other this is not a very constructive way to go forward,” he said.

– Election gambit –

The EU and Turkey last year signed a deal which has helped stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants into Greece.

Ankara has threatened to rescind the pact at times when tensions have flared with Brussels over concerns of human rights abuses.

Turkey began formal membership talks in 2005 after years of resistance from some EU members such as France, which were wary of admitting a largely Muslim country.

Progress has been slow and the negotiations came to a virtual halt last year after Turkey began the crackdown following the coup.

Merkel’s remarks on Sunday drew a typically robust response from Erdogan, who compared them to “Nazism”, but several European figures have suggested looking on her call in the light of her re-election battle.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said further discussions would follow the September 24 election in Germany, echoing comments by EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini earlier this week.

Mogherini said that geography and history made Turkey and the EU inescapable partners and the two sides should focus on ways to cooperate constructively.

“I would suggest that we look beyond what is said in the electoral campaigns both in Turkey and in the European Union,” she said at a strategic forum in Bled.

by Damon WAKE

Russia Gears Up for Major War Games, Neighbors Watch With Unease

August 31, 2017

MOSCOW — Russia is preparing to hold large-scale military exercises it says will be of a purely defensive nature, amid concerns in neighboring nations that the drills may be used as a precursor for an invasion.

A total of around 12,700 servicemen will take part in the war games, code named Zapad 2017, which will be held on Sept. 14-20 in western Russia, Belarus and Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad. These will include around 5,500 Russian troops.

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the U.S. Army’s top general in Europe, told Reuters last month that U.S. allies in eastern Europe and Ukraine were worried the exercises could be a “Trojan horse” aimed at leaving behind military equipment brought into Belarus.

Image result for Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, photos

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges

This week Russia’s Defence Ministry rejected what it said were false allegations it might use the drills as a springboard to launch invasions of Poland, Lithuania or Ukraine.

The following graphic shows the breakdown of the troops and military hardware, including warships and aircraft, to be used in the exercises, according to data provided by Russia’s Defence Ministry. It also shows the locations of the drills.

For a graphic on Russia’s Zapad war games, click:

(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Mark Heinrich)