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Gabriel: Russian military build-up ‘completely irrational’

Sigmar Gabriel at the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mar. 1, 2017.
Sigmar Gabriel at the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mar. 1, 2017. Source: (Postimees/Scanpix)

The Baltic states were no threat to Russia, and NATO’s increased presence in the area a reasonable deterrent, German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel said in a speech to military officers in Lithuania on Thursday.

German Minister of Foreign Affairs Sigmar Gabriel visited the German 122nd Armed Grenadiers Battalion in the Lithuanian town of Rukla on Thursday. Part of an international battalion of NATO, 420 German military personnel are stationed there, along with 20 Marder-type infantry fighting vehicles, and six Leopard-II-type tanks. The entire NATO battalion in the area is to be extended to 1,000 soldiers by May.

Lithuania was Gabriel’s last stop on his two-day trip to the Baltic states, on which he met with his counterparts in Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius as well. As German news portal Spiegel Online wrote on Friday, Gabriel found himself discussing hybrid threats and cyber defense in all three capitals, topics that are less common in Germany and the local discussion.

The recent fake news incident involving the German troops stationed in Lithuania, where a campaign of false reports stated that German soldiers had raped an underage girl, was the type of threat both the Baltic governments and the German troops in the area were prepared for and able to deal with, Spiegel Online wrote.

Gabriel on NATO’s 2-percent goal: Neighbors wouldn’t like to see Germany spend €60 billion on military

According to the portal, Gabriel left no doubt where Germany stands, saying that “The security of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania is equal to the security of Germany”. Only a clear position in the Western alliance would make new cooperation possible, Gabriel was quoted by Spiegel.

About the continuing criticism that Germany was one of NATO’s members who were not spending the 2 percent GDP equivalent on national defense, as it was supposedly decided at the alliance’s Wales Summit in 2014, Gabriel said that this was more of a common goal than a prescribed aim, and that such a step would mean increasing Germany’s military budget to €60 billion a year. This again would make it the foremost military power in its area, which he guessed was something with which the country’s neighbors might not be too comfortable.

German daily Die Zeit wrote that Gabriel’s stance on his trip to the Baltic states would not please all of his party, the German Social Democrats. “The military potential that the Russian Federation is building up here is completely irrational, because they are facing zero threat from the Baltic states,” Gabriel said in a short speech to NATO officers and troops in Rukla.

Social democratic minister has realistic agenda

As the paper points out, such talk is unusual coming from a minister of the Social Democrats, the political heirs of the Ostpolitik implemented by then-chancellor Willy Brandt beginning in 1969. The party has for decades stood for a course of de-escalation and at times appeasement of Soviet and Russian leaders. There is a certain amount of surprise detectable in the German media about the clarity and decidedness of Gabriel’s latest statements.

Just last year, during NATO’s Sabre Strike exercise, his predecessor and now the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, called NATO’s increased presence “sabre-rattling” and “warmongering”, a stance much more typical for the party.

But Gabriel made it clear that the three Russian divisions and altogether more than 60,000 troops on the Russian side indeed are a cause for concern for him as well. The allied troops would remain where they are “as long as needed”, Gabriel said. Germany’s de-escalation politics of the past had been possible only because the country had been secure in the Western alliance. That, according to the minister, was the position from which communication with Moscow had been possible.

On a more personal note, Gabriel also said he remembered how he had been in the Bundeswehr in the late 70s and early 80s, and more so how he grew up on West Germany’s eastern border. “We never felt that there could really be a conflict with the Warsaw Pact states”, Gabriel said, adding that they had been able to trust in NATO, and that its protection had kept others from getting any ideas.

Baltic countries still looking to USA as strongest NATO decision maker

The Berliner Morgenpost pointed out that the Balts didn’t seem rattled by the ongoing debate in Germany and its reluctance to increase its defense spending. This was mainly connected to the fact that to the Baltic states, it was still the United States who represented the most reliable guarantee of their security.

Asked if U.S. president Donald Trump’s recent appeasement of Putin was a reason for concern, Estonian minister of foreign affairs, Sven Mikser, had commented “dryly” that several American administrations had attempted the same and eventually had a sobering experience, the paper wrote.

It was understandable, then, that the Baltic states saw Germany’s main role as that of pacemaker for a strong European Union. “We don’t want the EU’s integration to diminish,” Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs said at his meeting with Gabriel—a statement that according to the paper brought a beaming smile to the German minister’s face.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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