The World Today for October 06, 2017



New Song and Dance

Last month, Sweden conducted its largest set of war games in two decades, mobilizing some 19,000 troops with support from NATO countries.

Normally neutral Sweden hasn’t fought a war in centuries and has systematically cut military and defense spending to about 1 percent of economic output over the past three decades, Reuters reported.

But with Russian military aggression seeming more likely following the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Swedes are starting to sing a different tune.

“The security situation has taken a turn for the worse,” said Micael Byden, the commander of the Swedish Armed Forces, during the nation’s military exercises. “Russia is the country that affects security in Europe right now with its actions…so it is clear that we are watching very closely what Russia is doing.”

Russia has increasingly militarized its borders with the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia – all of which are European Union and NATO members.

Meanwhile, Moscow recently held its own set of war games. The massive Zapad exercise officially mobilized 13,000 troops – although some speculate as many as 100,000 troops were involved – to the Baltics and Belarus to repel a mock invasion of the “Western Coalition,” the New York Times reported this week.

Such displays have Sweden on edge: After decades of cuts, the nation is bolstering its anemic army of 22,000 troops by reinstituting partial conscription. It’s also increasing military spending by almost $900 million over the next three years, Euronews reported.

And despite its mantra of steering clear of armed conflict, 47 percent of Swedes support NATO membership, the Economist reported, citing a recent Pew Research Center study.

All opposition parties in the Swedish parliament are in favor of the move as well, with the governing coalition preferring to cozy up to NATO as much as possible without sealing the deal. After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin told state news outlets back in June that Sweden’s ascension to NATO’s ranks would be considered a “threat” to be “eliminated.”

Access to NATO’s vast resources has obvious benefits for Sweden’s scrawny defenses. But Sweden is a strategic partner for NATO as well.

The country dominates the geography of the Baltic Sea. Free access to Swedish ports and land routes would make mobilizing troops much easier in the event of a Russian affront on the Baltics, the Foreign Policy Research Institute wrote.

But war games, military strategy and bellicose rhetoric aside, a direct Russian invasion of the Baltics – or any other NATO state for that matter – is fairly unlikely, security researchers from King’s College London wrote in the Conversation.

More likely is that the pomp and circumstance on both sides could cause a nervous, trigger-happy neighbor to take unilateral action, drawing reluctant allies into battle with a reluctant enemy.

If Sweden follows through with its new song and dance, that’s a tricky step it’ll have to consider.



One Down, One to Go

The Iraqi army and Iran-backed Shia militias have recaptured the town of Hawija from the Islamic State, leaving the Islamist militant group with just one major stronghold remaining in Iraq.

Launched on Sept. 21, the offensive saw troops advance from the south and west, crossing the Hamrin Mountains and reaching the center of Hawija in less than two weeks, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ the Long War Journal reported. Islamic State forces still control a small pocket of villages to the north and east of the town, but are now surrounded.

Hawija, which the Islamic State captured in 2014, was its last major stronghold in northern Iraq. It had already been expelled from Tikrit, Baiji, Al Qayyarah and Mosul over the past year. Now, its last foothold in the country lies along the western branch of the Euphrates River Valley, from the towns of Anah and Rawa to al Qaim on the Syrian border. It also holds territory along the Euphrates on the Syrian side of the border.

Iranian proxies have become an important branch of Iraq’s security apparatus, the Journal notes – which may get tricky later on.


Exit This Way

Washington confirmed that its expulsion of Cuban diplomats this week included all those dealing with US businesses, another blow to bilateral ties in the wake of mysterious health problems that affected US embassy staff in Havana.

On Tuesday, the US expelled 15 diplomats to protest Cuba’s failure to protect its diplomats from what is suspected to be some kind of attack – either by sonic waves or possibly poison, Wired reported. Including officers of the Economic and Trade Office in the expulsion will make it harder for US businesses to take the first steps to enter the Cuban market, as such officials help businesses submit a trip proposal, seek out counterparts at state-owned enterprises in the centralized economy, and receive a business visa to travel to Havana, Reuters said.

It’s not clear if the embassy will continue to issue those visas through the one diplomat who will remain in the consular office. Meanwhile, the new hurdles come as the original enthusiasm from US investors has cooled, after companies realized that detente hardly made a difference to the difficulty of doing business in cash-strapped Cuba.


Mounting Suspense

Spain’s Constitutional Court suspended the Catalan parliament on Thursday, in keeping with the Spanish government’s desire to prevent secessionist Catalan politicians from unilaterally declaring independence at Monday’s session in the wake of the recent referendum.

Far from cooling the tensions, the suspension order further aggravated the crisis, Reuters reported. A member of the Catalan parliament told the agency that her colleagues had not yet decided whether to defy the central court and go ahead with the session, and Spanish stocks rose on the news that the declaration might be delayed.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said it’s up to the parliament whether or not to meet. “But the Constitutional Court has no right to impede a democratic parliament session, which by law is inviolable,” CNN reported.

Meanwhile, a formal declaration of independence could compel Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to impose direct rule in Catalonia – which already has a great deal of autonomy under the post-1975 constitution. That would likely mean deploying officers from the Guardia Civil, the national security force.


Below the Surface

Scientists recently completed their first exploration of the sunken continent of Zealandia, a nearly 5-million-square-kilometer landmass believed to have split off from Australia around 80 million years ago.

The international research team conducted a two-month expedition of this sunken world, the goal being to reveal its history and geology. Researchers drilled more than 860 meters below the sea floor in six different sites across Zealandia, discovering various fossils and sediment cores lost beneath Pacific waters, the Guardian reported.

Scientists now have more insight into the varied geography and climate of the lost continent, as well as evidence of ecological and tectonic changes that took place over millions of years.

They posit that the continent may have been closer to land level than previously believed, for example, providing pathways for flora and fauna to migrate to other continents.

In a paper published in February in the Journal of the Geological Society of America, scientists declared Zealandia as Earth’s eighth continent.

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