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On Russia: For Too Long Some Nations Have Looked the Other Way
Thank you so much. Thank you so much, Gernal Jones.
And it’s really—it’s really me who owes all of you a debt of gratitude, General Jones in particular. He was so gracious to me when I took over this position. And on that line about, you know, the best officers in the Army, there are a lot of people who know better than that, especially General Lute, for whom I served as his plans officer when I was a captain in the 2nd Cavalry Regiment. And then Rich—and Rich Clarke, who’s here, our great J5 on the Joint Staff who’s my West Point classmate, and who knows as a kid I was often misunderstood and a victim of circumstance. I was.
But thank you. Thank you, General Jones. Thank you for your work with Fred Kempe and Damon Wilson—I’m so glad he’s OK—to organize this wonderful event and host all of us for dinner. The Atlantic Council is a special place, and the Atlantic Council does special work that is increasingly important to all of our—all of our security.
But President Kaljulaid and President Vejonis, what an honor to be here with two great leaders who have been so strong—so strong for their own nations, but really so strong for the West and all of us. And, Minister Linkevicius, it is great—it is great to be here with you and all of our delegations.
And what a great—what a great idea to be—to pull together this group here—thank you, Atlantic Council—on this historic occasion of the U.S.-Baltic Centennial Summit. So I want to just begin by congratulating Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania once again on their 100th anniversary of independence. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to celebrate this important milestone with you in Washington, D.C. And so what we’ll think, though, more—even more so than the history—about the history is that we’re beginning 100 years of renewed partnership among our nations.
As President Trump said earlier today, the United States has never ceased to recognize the independence of the Baltic republics. In 1940, when the Soviet Union invaded your nations, U.S. Acting Secretary of State Sumner Welles issued the famous Welles Declaration. In that declaration, Welles confidently wrote that the American people opposed any form of intervention on the part of one state, however powerful, in the domestic concerns of any other sovereign state, however weak. In the absence of respect for sovereignty, Welles continued, the basis of modern civilization itself cannot be preserved.
After Welles’ bold and historic declaration, through the decades of Soviet occupation that followed, the United States continued to affirm the sovereignty of the Baltic republics. Throughout that entire period, we confidently displayed the flags of independent Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania alongside our own.
Tonight we celebrate this proud history at a critical moment for our nations and the world—critical because we are now engaged in a fundamental contest between our free and open societies and closed and repressive systems. Revisionist and repressive powers are attempting to undermine our values, our institutions, and our way of life. To preserve our sovereignty and prevail, we must renew the same confidence that inspired Welles and empowered the people of the Baltic nations through decades of Soviet occupation. Armed with this confidence, we will triumph over new threats, including those posed by Russia’s increased aggression around the world.
Since the denial-of-service attacks on Estonia in 2007 and the invasion of Georgia in 2008, Russia has used old and new forms of aggression to undermine our open societies and the foundations of international peace and stability. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have all been targeted by Russia’s so-called hybrid warfare, a pernicious form of aggression that combines political, economic, informational, and cyber assaults against sovereign nations. Russia employs sophisticated strategies deliberately designed to achieve objectives while falling below the target state’s threshold for a military response. Tactics include infiltrating social media, spreading propaganda, weaponizing information, and using other forms of subversion and espionage.
So for too long some nations have looked the other way in the face of these threats. Russia brazenly and implausibly denies its actions. And we have failed to impose sufficient costs.
The Kremlin’s confidence is growing as its agents conduct their sustained campaigns to undermine our confidence in ourselves and in one another. Last month, Russia used a military-grade nerve agent in an attempted murder that endangered the lives of over 130 people, including many children. This attack was the first offensive use of nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War. It was an assault on the United Kingdom’s sovereignty. And any use of chemical weapons by a state party is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Russia has also conducted numerous cyberattacks against free nations. On March 15th, the Trump administration released a report condemning the Russian government for malicious cyber intrusions that targeted U.S. critical infrastructure, including our energy sector. And we also know that Russia was behind the recent NotPetya cyberattack that caused billions of dollars in damage around the world.
Further, over the past year Russia has conducted numerous intercepts of U.S., allied, and partner aircraft and vessels, including in the Nordic-Baltic region, threatening freedom of navigation and endangering our personnel.
Mr. Putin may believe that he is winning in this new form of warfare. He may believe that his aggressive actions in the parks of Salisbury and cyberspace, in the air and on the high seas can undermine our confidence, our institutions, and our values. Perhaps he believes that our free nations are weak and will not respond—will not respond to his provocations.
He is wrong. Russian aggression is strengthening our resolve and our confidence. We might all help Mr. Putin understand his grave error. We might show him the beaches of Normandy, where lingering craters and bullet holes demonstrate the West’s will to sacrifice to preserve our freedom. We might bring him to our concert halls and theaters, where the music and art of our people reveal our freedom to create, imagine, and to dream. We might take him to our universities, where the free exchange of ideas among young men and women displays our freedom to learn, to speak, and to achieve our highest aims. We might lead him to the stately buildings here in Washington, where inscriptions carved deep into stone proclaim that we are free to worship, equal under the law, and opposed to every form of tyranny over the mind of man. We might introduce him to the people—the people of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, who endured the devastation of the Second World War, decades of Soviet occupation and communism, and emerged proud, strong, sovereign, free, and prosperous. These are three of the most creative and innovative nations on Earth. And Mr. Putin might also then consider how the Russian people’s aspirations connect his own population to us, despite the Kremlin’s efforts to sow dissention abroad and repress freedom at home.
In the room tonight are elected officials, public servants, intellectuals, and leaders from the private sector. We converse without fearing that our opinions will lead to imprisonment, torture, or the death of a loved one. We might ask others around the world a simple question: Would you rather be part of a small club of autocrats that might rotate their meetings between Moscow, Tehran, Damascus, Havana, Caracas, and Pyongyang, or would you rather be a club of free peoples who respect sovereignty, individual rights, and the rule of law? I think our club is better, and I think our club’s more fun for sure—(laughter)—than that club.
It is—it is time that we expose those who glamorize and apologize in the service of communist, authoritarian, and repressive governments, regimes who torture, enslave, oppress, and murder their people. Even in the United States and in other free nations, some journalists, academics, public officials, and saddest of all young people have developed and promulgated idealized, warped views of tyrannical regimes.
A clear-eyed view of the brutal nature of repressive governments and ideologies is central to the president’s National Security Strategy. And I appreciate the—I appreciate the comments about the National Security Strategy, but I should just say that it was really Dr. Nadia Schadlow who ran that effort and did a wonderful job for the president and led a great team to do that. So—great job. (Applause.)
Since taking office, the president has repeatedly told the truth about these murderous regimes and oppressive doctrines. I’d like to ask you to refer to some of the previous speeches. I mean, we heard this truth from the president at the United Nations. We heard this truth in Riyadh. We heard this truth in Warsaw. We heard this truth in Seoul. And we heard this truth in the seat of our democracy as Mr. Ji Seong-ho raised his crutches above the chamber in defiance.
The history of repression and authoritarianism is one of theft, torture, murder, and immense human suffering, and it is not—sadly, it is not a phenomenon of the past. We are presently engaged in competitions with repressive and authoritarian systems to defend our way of life, to preserve our free and open societies. We must be confident. We must be active. We cannot be passive and hope that others will defend our freedom. The call to compete, to cooperate with others who share our principles, and to catalyze positive change is central to the president’s National Security Strategy. And over the past year, the United States, our allies, and our partners have acted to defend our institutions and our liberty.
Last week, in response to Russia’s nerve-agent attack, nations around the world, including the United States and the Baltic republics, announced the coordinated expulsion of Russian officials from their countries. The United States played a supporting role in catalyzing a response by NATO and like-minded nations. The number of expelled officials is growing. As of last Friday, nearly 30 countries had acted to expel more than 150 Russian officials. These actions represent the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history.
In the United States, President Trump ordered the removal of dozens of Russian intelligence officers and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle. This action will also help protect our democratic institutions and processes, as these Russian officers orchestrate Russia’s sustained campaign of propaganda, disinformation, and political subversion.
In April of last year, the United States joined eight other nations in establishing the new European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. To defend against new forms of aggression and subversion, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—nations that experienced the first blows from Russia in cyberspace and on social media—all are lending their invaluable expertise to that center.
The Trump administration also continues to impose sanctions and other penalties on Russian entities for targeting our cybersecurity, attacking our infrastructure, and otherwise infringing on the sovereign rights of the United States and our allies. And the United States, as has already been mentioned, is substantially increasing funding for the European Deterrence Initiative, or EDI, which provides billions of dollars to U.S. military and allied forces in Europe to deter Russian aggression and prevent conflict.
So we are acting, but we must recognize the need for all of us to do more to respond to and deter Russian aggression, especially in four critical areas.
First, we must compete across all arenas to counter so-called hybrid warfare, this new form of Soviet-era active measures and maskirovka. We must reform and integrate our military, political, economic, law enforcement, and informational instruments of power to deter and defeat threats to our sovereignty.
Second, we must catalyze change. We must invest in our cyber infrastructure to ensure that we protect our data, our innovation base, and infrastructure against espionage and theft and attack. To deter adversaries, we must be prepared to impose a high cost in response to cyber aggression.
Third, we must all cooperate to share responsibility in these and other security efforts. Even as the United States has committed nearly $10 billion to EDI, many NATO countries, unlike the Baltic nations we are—who are here tonight, are still not honoring the Wales pledge to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Our mutual security requires everyone to contribute.
Finally, we must realize that all of our actions depend on preserving our strategic confidence, our will to advance our values and defend our way of life. In that 1940 declaration that affirmed the Baltic nations’ independence, Sumner Welles was clear: “The people of the United States are opposed to predatory activities no matter whether they are carried on by the use of force or by the threat of force.” Welles’ noble text forever bound Americans to our Baltic brothers and sisters in a partnership based on respect for sovereignty, freedom, and the rule of law. As President Kaljulaid said earlier today, as long as we remain confident in these foundational principles, proud of our history, and faithful to our values, our nations will remain strong, secure, and free.
It has been a privilege—great privilege to serve the United States for 34 years. Tonight, at my last public engagement, it is an honor to address an audience that fundamentally understands what is at stake for our free and open societies.
Early in my career I had a change, with General Lute, to patrol the East-West German border and to see—to see that artificial boundary collapse—collapse suddenly one day, and to go from staring down East German border guards across the border to our soldiers being flocked with East Germans carrying bouquets of flowers and bottles of wine. And so we ought to be confident. We ought to be confident that freedom will triumph over repression.
But we must strengthen our resolve, cooperate to share responsibility, catalyze positive change, and compete effectively in new arenas. The victory of free societies is not predestined, and I think that point was made earlier as well. There’s nothing inevitable about the course of human events and history. And there is no arc of history, there is no so-called end of history, that will ensure our success.
Brave men and women have fought for our liberty. They’ve fought with their pens, as Sumner Welles did in 1940. They’ve fought with their swords, as your brave independence fighters did in 1918 from these Baltic republics. And today the survival of our free and open societies and our way of life continues to depend on our confidence in our values, on our pride in our heritage, and on our will to defend our freedom.
Thank you for the great privilege of being—of being with you this evening. It’s truly been an honor. Thank you so much.