Lithuania in the Sahel: Implications for European Security

French President Emmanuel Macron with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda in Vilnius, Lithuania in September 2020. Courtesy of Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo

The recent decision of Lithuania to ramp up its military presence in the Sahel demonstrates the changing European security architecture, as European-led initiatives are increasingly supported across the east-west divide.

In 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron diagnosed NATO as ‘brain dead’. This statement, as well as Macron’s push for European strategic autonomy, infuriated many in Europe’s East. Last month, however, the Lithuanian parliament voted in favour of joining the French Task Force Takuba in Mali – a formative ad hoc deployment, designed to show the potential of European strategic autonomy. This decision represents a juncture in Lithuania’s military-strategic thinking. A staunch supporter of transatlantic defence structures, the country is now attempting to embrace a concept it has opposed for years. The small state’s decision thus has big implications for the overall European security architecture, as Europe moves towards a more independent defence model.

The Evolving European Security Architecture

The European security architecture is changing, marked by regional shifts such as the pivot to the Indo-Pacific, as well as thematic adjustments, with emerging threats such as climate change, energy and cyber security seizing the top of the agenda. Some even argue that we are experiencing a transition to a post-European security agenda as the continent becomes less of a focus for global power politics than in previous centuries. However, recently, traditional threats such as Russia and the Belarusian regime have escalated significantly as well.

Simultaneously, European power dynamics are evolving internally, as smaller countries are becoming more vocal and impactful in security debates, be it individually or collectively. These changing dynamics were illustrated last June, when Poland and the Baltic states blocked the Franco-German proposal for an EU–Russia Summit, hence showing that the support of countries in Europe’s East is now essential for those states traditionally perceived as European leaders. Additionally, the wider security climate is changing, with the US being relied on less as the principal security actor, while the UK’s commitments are questioned post-Brexit.

France’s Gravitational Pull

Observing such shifts in the security environment, some European countries have taken the lead in adapting to the changes. Paris, in particular, has been exerting a gravitational pull by initiating ad hoc opt-in, opt-out security arrangements. Two such deployments are already active: Task Force Takuba in Mali and the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz mission in the Gulf. While some European countries supported these initiatives, others – particularly in Central and Eastern Europe – have not been in favour. After years of asking Lithuania to ramp up its military presence in the Sahel, Macron renewed the discussion between Vilnius and Paris last spring by sending a letter to Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda. The request to provide logistical and operational support for Takuba stated that Lithuania’s contribution would be ‘particularly useful and valuable’.

For Lithuania, engagement in France’s region of interest in the Sahel is designed to ensure France’s backing in the Baltic neighbourhood

Despite years of opposition to the French-led initiatives and scepticism from Lithuania’s political and military elite, Vilnius has now agreed to send up to 30 troops and a ‘Spartan’ plane to Mali. Deployed in Niger, ‘Spartan’ would carry out missions in Mali and contribute to airlift capabilities. According to Minister of Defense Arvydas Anušauskas, ‘this would make a very significant contribution to the success of the operations of the Special Operations Forces’.

Lithuania as Regional Leader and Global Actor

For seasoned Lithuania observers, the country’s involvement in Takuba might come as a surprise. For the first time, Lithuanian military-strategic thinking can be described as pragmatic, rather than ideological. While the Baltic country undoubtedly supports the mission of fighting jihadism, the primary driver for the decision to increase Lithuania’s military presence in the Sahel was the belief that France would support Lithuania’s security concerns in return.

In particular, faced with the ongoing migration crisis orchestrated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Vilnius is expecting that France will implement new EU border protection measures during its EU Council presidency in 2022. Both Macron and French Minister of Defense Florence Parly have expressed support for such measures, as well as solidarity with Lithuania in the fight against the hybrid attack from Belarus. During a bilateral meeting with Lithuanian President Nausėda in Paris in November, Macron asserted that ‘during the last weeks we have asked Alexander Lukashenko to stop engaging in this manipulation … France supports Lithuania in this time of pressure’. Hence, for Lithuania, engagement in France’s region of interest in the Sahel is designed to ensure France’s backing in the Baltic neighbourhood.

Joining Task Force Takuba plays into Lithuania’s larger goal – becoming a regional leader and a global actor – a role Vilnius has begun to embrace since the onset of the Belarus crisis

Additionally, joining Takuba plays into Lithuania’s larger goal – becoming a regional leader and a global actor – a role Vilnius has begun to embrace since the onset of the Belarus crisis. As summarised by the Chairman of the National Security and Defense Committee of the Lithuanian Parliament Laurynas Kasčiūnas, by joining the mission in Mali, Lithuania is showing that it is not only a security importer, but also a security exporter. Furthermore, the African mission provides a new opportunity for Lithuanian troops to gain battlefield experience after their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The Future for European Strategic Autonomy

Overall, Lithuania’s international operations plan for 2022–2023 shows that the Baltic country will allocate more troops to EU-led missions and unilateral initiatives – such as Lithuania’s training mission in Ukraine – than to NATO and US-led missions. Hence, the ideological shift towards accepting European strategic autonomy is apparent.

Importantly, the development comes at a moment when the US administration is also becoming more favourable towards strengthening sovereign European capabilities. In a recent joint statement, Presidents Macron and Joe Biden affirmed that ‘the United States also recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO’.

Therefore, with sovereign initiatives becoming an integral part of European security, countries in Central and Eastern Europe will have to become more open towards joining independent European missions if they want the continued support of Europe’s ‘big three’ – the UK, France and Germany – in their region.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Monika Bičkauskaitė

Program Assistant, German Marshall Fund of the United States, Warsaw Office

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