November 2016

By Sally Painter


International conferences can often bring together like-minds for conversations that resemble echo chambers where participants hear much of what they already know or believe. The 12th annual Baltic Forum hosted in Latvia, which I had the opportunity to participate in this October, aims to bridge that divide by bringing together a diverse group of participants and panelists who might otherwise not have the opportunity to learn from one another.

Click here to watch Sally Painter's remarks at the 2016 Baltic Forum in Latvia.

This year’s gathering was attended by delegates from across the Baltic region, Russia, Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States and included experts from national and local governments, academia, think tanks, private sector, and the media. As one of the few Americans attending, I found the presentations and discussion particularly illuminating and refreshing, in no small part due to the chance to hear the Russian perspective, to which we in the West are often not privy. In light of the myriad of current tensions in Western relations with Russia (Syria, Ukraine, NATO, and cybersecurity to name a few), the focus of this year’s event was timely: “Russia-EU: the challenges of interdependence and the setting of a new agenda.”

Presenters shared perspectives ranging from efforts to reduce tensions and improve security in the region to solving frozen conflicts such as Ukraine-Crimea to the importance of expanding economic and trade ties and cooperation (notwithstanding the current situation of sanctions and reprisals) between Russia and Europe. The Russian perspective, which is important to hear, was characterized by a feeling that its actions and policies are misunderstood on the global stage, its desire to be treated with respect and on equal footing, and a foreboding sense that Western (read: NATO and EU) interests – both economic and military – are increasingly aligned against Russia, often in an aggressive and confrontational posture.

My own comments focused on the potential foreign policy approach of the next U.S. administration from a Democratic candidate position, which while continuing to work multilaterally, is likely to chart a more activist and proactive stance based on strong engagement and U.S. global leadership. While reasserting a strong commitment to the Transatlantic partnership, the next U.S. president will need to identify areas for cooperation with Russia, which could include arms control, action on climate change, and enhancing forums where the U.S. and the West can participate and dialogue with Russia. These could include such forums as the OSCE and the NATO-Russia Council to discuss Russia’s place within the European security architecture while enabling its legitimate security interests to be heard with the goal of decreasing tensions and opening up additional lines of cooperative communication.

Events such as the Baltic Forum and other similar envisioned gatherings and exchanges are needed today more than ever. Forums such as these that bring Western representatives together to dialogue with their Russian counterparts can help build a foundation of international values and norms focusing on mutual respect and the rule of law that we can all share and use to guide policy and relations. In this way, we can work together jointly towards solutions instead of allowing our challenges to build ever widening chasms of distrust.

Fortunately, the participants at the Baltic Forum all committed to continuing to support this important gathering and dialogue for years to come. I very much look forward to being a part of this community and to building relationships with its participants in the future.