German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has lashed out at the NATO military alliance over drills being carried out in eastern Europe following the completion of a 10-day training programme in Poland.
Over 20 NATO members, including Germany, took part in the large-scale exercises that involved some 30,000 troops as a measure taken to reassure eastern European countries of the bloc’s support amid heightened tensions with Russia.
Nordic and Baltic countries have been particularly on high alert to the Russian threat ever since Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, raising concerns that a resurgent Russia could mobilise its proxies in the wider region to regain influence lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The European Union has since slapped economic sanctions on Russia in a bid to pressure Moscow to withdraw from the Crimean peninsula, which hosts a strategic naval base in the coastal Black Sea city of Sevastopol.
However, Russia has also hit back at the EU with counter-sanctions, which has affected European producers who previously relied on exports to Russia for their livelihood.
The issue has caused divisions in Europe reminiscent of the Cold War era, with some calling to boost defences against Moscow while others back a more conciliatory stance in order to preserve trade relations.
— Steven Pifer (@steven_pifer) June 18, 2016
Steinmeier's criticism of Nato may appear unusual but his party, the SPD, has a tradition of urging caution in the East (Helmut Schmidt)
— Patrick Jackson (@patrickgjackson) June 18, 2016
Appalled Sigmar Gabriel & F-W Steinmeier support diluting sanctions on #Russia. Berlin's capitulation to Putin regime an affront to decency.
— Daniel Hamilton (@danielrhamilton) May 31, 2016
— Thomas C. Theiner (@noclador) June 18, 2016
In an interview published by Bild newspaper on Sunday, the German foreign minister, whose left-wing Social Democrats (SPD) favour warmer ties with Russia, urged NATO to stop inflaming the situation with “loud sabre-rattling” and “shrill war cries."
"Whoever believes that symbolic tank parades on the alliance's eastern border will bring more security is mistaken," Steinmeier said. "We are well-advised not to create pretexts to renew an old confrontation."
Urging a diplomatic solution to maintain stability in the region, Steinmeier said it would be “fatal” to “narrow the focus to the military, and seek a remedy solely through a policy of deterrence.”
He also called on NATO to “renew discussions about the benefits of disarmament and arms control for security in Europe.”
Steinmeier's comments are in stark opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, the larger party in the coalition government, which demonstrates a firm stance against Russian expansionism.
Germany, currently in its 26th year as a united country, is still haunted by the Cold War era which saw the nation divided between the West and the former Communist Eastern Bloc.
Remnants of the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the frontline that once cut Europe in half, still serve as a reminder to all Germans of the darkest days in the country's recent history.
Along with the US and Britain, Germany has been spearheading plans to establish a new NATO force along the Russian border next year. Each of the three countries will take charge of a battalion with the aim of protecting Poland and the Baltic states from a potential Russian advance.
The plans, which will involve troops on rotation, warehoused equipment and a highly mobile force backed by NATO's 40,000-strong rapid reaction unit, are set to receive approval at a NATO summit in Warsaw on July 8.
Increasing militarisation in the region is taking place on both sides of the Russian border. On Thursday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was quoted in Bild accusing Russia of seeking to create "a zone of influence through military means" along NATO borders.
"We are registering aggressive, unannounced, large-scale manoeuvres on the Russian side. Therefore we must act," he told the German newspaper.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denied the claims, saying Russia has no plans to invade any NATO members.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also dismissed Stoltenberg’s statements in a speech given at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) on Friday.
NATO has “an absolutely slapdash attitude to our position on anything,” Putin said, adding his opinion that the military bloc “needs a foreign enemy, otherwise what would be the reason for the existence of such an organisation.”