After a four-month logistical marathon, Sweden’s 250-strong military surveillance mission to Mali is in place, complete with packets of Arctic Storm liquorice chewing gum to ease pangs of homesickness. The final 70 Swedish troops arrived in Timbuktu on 14 March to begin heading a drone-flying operation for the UN stabilisation mission Minusma in Mali.
The drones will provide “eyes” where there is only sand and no roads: in the 900km stretch from the desert town to the Algerian border. “We are bringing small, tactical, unarmed drones that you can send out ahead of a patrol but also medium-sized ones that can travel up to 20km,” says Colonel Peter Öberg, deputy force commander for Sector West, a UN military zone in Mali the size of France and Germany combined.
Sweden hopes participating in the 10,000-strong Minusma force will help it secure a seat on the UN Security Council. The Netherlands recently had the same idea and sent 90 special forces to Gao in the northeast of the country. But still the majority of the blue-helmet contingent in the country come from poorly resourced African and Asian states.
Helping to prevent the spread of Islamist militant groups is high on the agenda. “We have al-Qaeda-inspired groups in the area but our mandate is robust,” says Colonel Öberg. “The question is whether we have the resources to operate in a safe and secure way so that a third party is not hurt. The distances are vast and the infrastructure is poor. It is a difficult task.”
While territorial disputes are not uncommon between nations, western Europe might have considered them a thing of the past. But now Portugal and Spain have become embroiled in a quarrel that hinges on a technicality: whether the Savage Islands, an archipelago under Portuguese control, should be classified as rocks or islands. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, uninhabited rocks “shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf”.
Since the Savage Islands are a nature reserve with two wardens as their only inhabitants, Spanish authorities have claimed they should be redefined as rocks. “If this claim is accepted by the UN it’s likely the Spanish government will soon start maritime exploration works, looking for gas and oil,” says Jan Gerhard, Europe country risk analyst at IHS. The UN is due to issue a decision by September.
The Turkish government is set to award a €3.1bn contract for the country’s first missile-defence system. After years of negotiations, during which time its leaders have deferred and deliberated, the deal has become something of a litmus test: is Turkey a Nato ally or not?
The two main bids have come from Eurosam (a French-Italian partnership) and a Raytheon-Lockheed Martin consortium from the US. But last year Turkey championed a cheaper system by China Precision Machinery Import Export Corp. The prospect of a deal with China actually going ahead worries many in the West, who have tried to convince the Turkish government to adopt a system that can be integrated with Nato’s missile defences.
“Should Turkey go Chinese in its defensive modernisation efforts,” says Dr Can Kasapoglu from Istanbul think-tank Edam, “it would hardly be a sign of allied solidarity, if not represent a true drift.”
Eastern European countries are moving to restore conscription due to rising fears over Russian expansionism. Lithuania passed a law in March bringing back mandatory conscription for men aged 19 to 26.