Remember Jonah Hill in the 2016 movie War Dogs? Then you’ve probably heard about the term “strategic goods”. Out of context, it may sound a bit vague. However, for those working in the security industry and the army, or operating in border control units, the expression refers to very specific items – weapons, ammunition, and components that can be used for military purposes in general. We are talking about military and dual-use (for both civil and military purposes) goods that, of course, require a license to be traded or transported through and within the borders of a country.
It’s dangerous stuff for which we should always remember what mom said when we were young: never play with fire. Unless you have a good and legal reason for it, which is something that competent authorities are meant to establish. Estonian company Spin TEK is working to help governments in Moldova and Ukraine to understand where these weapons are, and who has the permission to own and trade them.
“A drop in the ocean”
Some countries encounter more problems than others in keeping track of what is crossing their borders and what is being traded on their home territory. Due to a troubled remote past or to recent conflicts, where these are not even still ongoing, it may prove difficult to trace and take a census of all the weapons and ammunition that people own in their garages, storage rooms, or even just inside their flats. To many, this may sound surreal; in reality, quite a few countries in Europe, and more all around the world, are facing such kind of issues.
In the first half of 2016, a Ukraine government appeal to the population to voluntarily surrender weapons at their disposal resulted in 4500 firearms, more than 300 shells, about 250 grenades, and a grenade launcher, being handed in by the locals. Police Colonel Kostyantyn Zhuk, in an interview with Associated Press following the appeal, stated that this is just “a drop in the ocean”.
On the southern border of Ukraine lies the unrecognized state of Transnistria, considered by all means by the United Nations and its members to be part of Moldova. It is believed to be one of Eastern Europe’s havens for illegal weapons trade, where tons of ammunition from the Soviet era have been left untouched – or sold.
The Ukrainian example shows that some of these weapons might actually be collected, registered, and withdrawn from the illegal market. It is in these regions that Spin TEK has worked in cooperation with the local governments, the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the U.S. State Department, to develop a customized strategic goods information and e-licensing system – a tool that could realistically support governments in fighting corruption and weapon traffickers.
Order and transparency. Spin TEK exports ‘Stratlink’
Spin TEK is one of Estonia’s oldest IT companies, with 27 years of experience in the field of development and implementation of software for ministries, local municipalities, private companies. With such a CV, it’s not surprising that 85% percent of all Estonian municipalities list among their customers. The Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs relied on them to build Stratlink, the e-licensing software for strategic goods that has been proudly presented to foreign delegations and third parties. The collaboration with the Export Control and Related Border Security programme (EXBS) of the U.S. State Department brought to the first talks with Moldova and Ukraine in Chişinău in 2016, and after a year of consultations, the development phase kicked off in September 2017.
Mari Pultsin, Member of the Management Board at Spin TEK, told us what Americans found so appealing about the project, and how it could actually solve some of Ukraine and Moldova’s problems in dealing with arms smuggling and related security threats – based on the Estonian experience.
“Stratlink – Pultsin explained – consists of two parts: the public side, available to all applicants; the administrative side, available to organizations, officials, and subject matter experts, responsible to manage the strategic trade. With the help of Stratlink, everything will be done digitally – applicants can apply and submit applications online, communicate with licensing authorities, submit reports and store issued licenses and other documents, all in a single solid system.”
“The licensing officers can review license applications, conduct interagency reviews, communicate with the applicants, as well as with different subject matter experts online. The system records all activities into log files and stores applications, processing data and license documents in the database, making the whole process transparent. The system also enables different license processing stages in parallel, which makes the entire procedure more efficient”, Pultsin said.
Authorities in Moldova and Ukraine, in this way, will experience a leap in the quality of the user experience when adopting these tools, and will also be able to contrast issues of national security such as corruption and terrorism.
Easy to use, ready to go
In Pultsin’s words, “Confronting these challenges effectively is critical to protecting a country’s national security, foreign policy, international commitments, population. The international community has already urged countries to manage and control trade in strategic goods, for everyone’s sake. Our system helps to expedite the application process and reduces the ability to obtain licenses through suspicious methods because the entire process is automated and visible in the system. It also improves communication between industry and licensing authorities, ensures a paper-free process, and it’s less susceptible to manual errors.”
Moreover, as a further effective measure, “Each time an applicant submits their application, the system will run a full check to determine whether this person’s name is present on different EU and US blacklists. Everything on the system will be logged and tracked, so data manipulation can be detected easily”, Pultsin added.
Determined to stand on legality
Stratlink is now ready to use, and it is set to change for good the way government officials deal with licensing the ownership or trade of weapons and military components in Ukraine and in Moldova. But even when coming up with efficient technological solutions, it’s the human side in every small revolution that can drastically increase their effectiveness.
Contrasting the illegal market of weapons of mass destruction, assault rifles, and ammunition is a commitment that requires all the efforts of a country’s customs and border control units. When some places in Europe can still be considered “supermarkets for guns” and firearms remain fairly accessible in sensitive areas, civic duty is what could make the real difference. The solution provided by Spin TEK with Stratlink is a huge step forward: confidence in making it work, then, must be a given.