'You have experienced these threats every day'

With Russia threat looming, Europe’s eastern flank looks to Israel for expertise

ELNET delegation of Baltic and Polish officials studies border security, emergency management, cyber defense; visit seen as step in repairing Warsaw-Jerusalem ties

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Members of ELNET's delegation from the Baltic states and Poland visit the MDA underground blood bank, June 2, 2022 (courtesy ELNET)
Members of ELNET's delegation from the Baltic states and Poland visit the MDA underground blood bank, June 2, 2022 (courtesy ELNET)

As the Baltic states anxiously watch Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and keep a close eye on their own borders with Russia, they are looking to Israel for guidance and expertise.

But it’s not Israel’s military knowhow they’re after. Since 2004, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have been part of NATO, and rely on the alliance for the defense of their territory in the not-inconceivable event of a Russian invasion. In 2017, NATO deployed a battalion-sized battlegroup in each of the three countries and Poland, and the countries will push for more significant deployments at the Madrid NATO summit in late June.

Instead, the Baltic countries — along with Poland — see Israel as a model for their own efforts to defend infrastructure,  protect civilians, and keep vital systems functioning in the face of a possible Russian assault.

On Tuesday, Alon Bar, the Foreign Ministry’s political director, headed a delegation to Tallinn that discussed regional security and Ukraine with his Baltic counterparts. Though the Israeli statement about the meeting focused on discussions around Iran, the Abraham Accords, and antisemitism, Estonia’s Foreign Ministry stressed the potential for cooperation in cybersecurity.

It is no coincidence that Tallinn is on guard against Russian cyberattacks. In 2007, amid a dispute between Estonia and Russia over a Soviet-era war memorial, a series of cyberattacks targeted Estonian banks, media outlets, parliament, and government ministries. The scope and sophistication of the attack led NATO to quickly establish its cyber defense center in Tallinn.

But Estonia wants to learn from Israel about more than cybersecurity. Tauno Suurkivi, deputy director-general of Estonia’s rescue services, paid a visit last week to Israel’s Home Front Command.

“We are developing civil protection, building sirens, shelters,” he told The Times of Israel on Thursday before heading to the airport to fly home. “Within the next one or two years, we have to build up those capabilities.”

Tauno Suurkivi, deputy director-general of Estonia’s rescue services (courtesy)

Suurkivi was in Israel on a three-day trip organized by ELNET,  an organization working to build ties between Israel and Europe. He was joined by nine other senior defense, law enforcement, health, and parliamentary officials from the Baltic states and Poland.

The four countries are all part of both NATO and the European Union.

Suurkivi, who led Estonia’s disaster relief team to Pakistan after a major earthquake in 2005, said that Estonia has two countries on which to model its rescue services and civil protection — Israel, and its northern neighbor Finland.

“Finns have prepared for everything, but you have experienced those threats every day, so you have more practical experience,” said Suurkivi.

Europe’s front lines

MP Rihards Kols, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Latvia’s parliament and national guardsman, saw the visit to Israel’s border with Lebanon as especially instructive for his country. The ELNET delegation walked through a Hezbollah tunnel and received an IDF briefing on the threat Israel faces just over the border.

“So far we’ve looked at the border as a border guards issue,” Kols said. The tunnels and other Hezbollah threats helped underscore for him the importance of viewing border security as a multidimensional matter that demands the attention of the military and multiple civilian agencies.

MP Rihards Kols, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Latvia’s parliament and national guardsman, In Israel, June 2, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Latvia has declared an emergency on its border, accusing Belarus of orchestrating the crossing of Iraqi and Afghani refugees into the country in retaliation for sanctions against Belarus’s crackdown on pro-democracy activists in 2020.

Kols sees a parallel in Iran and Russia using other countries to threaten their enemies. “You don’t call Lebanon a sovereign country anymore.… Belarus is something of that sort as well.”

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is Putin’s closest ally in Europe, but has called for an end to the war in Ukraine, now entering its fourth month.

Kols called for an expanded NATO-style alliance made up of democratic states, including Israel.

“The international rules-based order that has existed since the Second World War has been challenged,” he argued, “and that requires democracies to cooperate among themselves more actively.”

The persistence of the war is sparking the recent interest in Israeli expertise, said Shai Bazak, ELNET-Israel’s CEO.

“As the Russian aggression against Ukraine rages on, Europe must reassess how it contends with this war,” he told The Times of Israel. “The Baltic states and Poland, NATO’s eastern flank countries, stand at Europe’s front lines, magnifying the importance of learning from Israeli expertise in defense systems, trauma relief, cyber security and more.”

Marta Kubica, executive director of ELNET-Poland, said that all of the officials on the trip found specific areas where they wanted to follow up with Israeli counterparts.

A girl holds the Ukrainian flag to protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine during a celebration of Lithuania’s independence in Vilnius, Lithuania, March 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

“Every single person came to me and said they want to work with Israel in one way or another,” she said, “and their reactions are very practical. They’re interested in specific Israeli innovations, infrastructure and standard operating procedures.”

In addition to the Lebanon border and IDF Home Front Command, the group was briefed by Jerusalem’s police chief, spoke with coalition and opposition MKs at the Knesset, met with Foreign Ministry experts on Europe and cyber affairs, and learned about drone and optics solutions for border security at Israel Aerospace Industries.

The group — which included Latvia’s former health minister and Lithuania’s deputy health minister — also met with a range of Israeli health officials, including tours of Israel’s underground blood bank in Ramle and the COVID-19 operations center in Airport City.

Warsaw’s back

The visit was also an opportunity for Israel and Poland to continue working toward mending the diplomatic rift between them. Two Polish lawmakers were on the delegation.

Israel recalled its envoy to Warsaw for consultations in August, in a fierce response to Poland’s passage of a law that severely restricts World War II-era restitution claims.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also advised Poland’s ambassador to Israel to remain on vacation in his homeland, and instructed Israel’s new ambassador to Poland, Ya’acov Livne, to remain in Israel.

Since then, the two sides have slowly deescalated the tensions. Livne took up his perch in Warsaw in February to coordinate Israeli efforts to extract citizens from Ukraine and to provide aid to Kyiv.

“In relations between our countries, politicians too often use historical issues for their short-term goals and to influence the polls,” lamented Polish MP Marek Rutka. “Either we take a step forward together or we stay in the same place for years, blaming each other and sometimes accusing each other.”

Rutka, the first Polish legislator to visit the Knesset since 2017, said he asked Yesh Atid MK Simon Davidson to reestablish an Israel-Poland friendship group in the Knesset, and pointed out that the Poland-Israel group in Poland’s parliament is the largest such caucus in the legislature, with 127 out of 460 deputies in the group.

Rutka said the likely elections in Poland next fall, and possible elections in Israel should the current government collapse, are making him push for a rapid repair of bilateral ties.

When it comes to security, the State of Israel doesn’t plan only one step ahead, but at least two.

“It would be good for our relations if we are able to improve them by the time of the elections in both countries, so that the issue of mutual relations won’t be a part of a political campaign,” Rutka argued.

The presence of Rutka and Polish Senator Wojciech Konieczny on the delegation was an important symbol, ELNET’s Kubica explained. “Not only were they allowed to come, but they were well received by the Israeli side. This wouldn’t happen if the relations were still tense.”

Poland’s senate debates the controversial property restitution bill, July 7, 2021 (screen capture Facebook)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is driving the two countries back together, Rutka posited.

“For decades, Europe has been a safe place to live,” he reflected. “Now it isn’t anymore. The visit to Israel has shown that we have even more things in common with Israel now than three months ago.

“We can learn from you how to protect citizens in an emergency,” Rutka continued. “It is about both military and civil defense issues, preparing citizens for defense and appropriate reaction in the event of a threat.

“When it comes to security, the State of Israel doesn’t plan only one step ahead, but at least two.”

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