“A classic exercise in warfare” is how Lieutenant Colonel Marc-Ulrich Cropp describes his mission in the dense Lithuanian forest. His command post is a large olive-green tent not far from the tiny town of Rukla, 100 kilometers away from the border to Kaliningrad, Russia’s Baltic enclave.
Mr. Cropp is part of “Iron Wolf,” a maneuver involving 250 soldiers from the Infantry Battalion 291 of the German Armed Forces in Boxer tanks. They’re practicing alongside Danish units in German-produced Leopard 2 tanks and 600 Lithuanian soldiers, in an exercise which involves a simulated attack from the east.
Maneuvers like this are part of the NATO strategy that the summit of the alliance’s heads of state and government are slated to finalize in Warsaw on Friday and Saturday: to show more colors against Russia. Ahead of the summit, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel underlined her commitment to strengthening NATO’s eastern flank.
But others within her government fear any moves which could be viewed as saber-rattling could prove provocative. The German government is treading a fine line between maintaining dialogue with Russia while strengthening NATO. Ministers are divided over how to handle Russia and German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s warning earlier this week showed divisions between the parties in the coalition government.
At the weekend summit in Warsaw, the leaders of the 28 NATO allies and partner nations are expected to agree that four battalions with almost 1,000 men each will engage in permanent maneuvers in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. According to information from NATO circles, German armed forces are to take command in Lithuania as the “framework nation.” Great care is being taken that these units are replaced every nine months – so that there is no permanent stationing.
Germany in particular had insisted on strict adherence to the agreement signed with Moscow in 1997 concerning eastward expansion of NATO. The provisions specify that no “substantial combat troops” are to be deployed outside of original NATO territory. Thus German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen doesn’t refer to an actual stationing of the new troops but only to a “forward presence in the Baltic states and Poland.”
Fear of an attack by Russia is especially widespread there after the annexation of the Crimean peninsula. In fall of 2014, Vladimir Putin threatened that Russian troops could be in Riga, Tallinn or Warsaw in two days. “It’s not a matter only of Lithuania; what is at stake is the credibility of the entire alliance,” Lithuania’s foreign minister Linas Linkevicius told Handelsblatt.
Recently, Russia has repeatedly held unannounced maneuvers on its western border, sometimes with as many as 160,000 soldiers. In the latest exercise, “Sapad” (West), Mr. Putin’s army simulated an atomic strike against Warsaw.
Karl-Heinz Kamp, president of the Federal Academy for Security Policy, speaks of a “shift by Russia to imperial behavior patterns.” NATO must “react to this dawn of a new era” and “only remains credible if the alliance increases its efforts and maintains unity.”
But there are also voices warning against a strategy of deterrence. For example, the U.S. political scientist John Mearsheimer, no dreamy pacifist but an advocate of realpolitik. He fears that NATO’s strengthening of its eastern flank is “highly provocative” and will “poison relationships between Moscow and the West.”
Mr. Mearsheimer considers reciprocal attempts at intimidation to be dangerous and certainly not in Germany’s interest. Berlin should seek a relaxation of tensions, he said. Russia is not the Soviet Union and “isn’t on the verge of conquering Eastern Europe and threatening Germany.”
NATO is at least partially taking this criticism to heart. It is accompanying the increase of troops with a demonstrative readiness for dialogue. NATO’s Russia Council is scheduled to meet next week. The word is that more transparency and risk reduction are also on the agenda.
The U.S. government envisions a key role for Germany in the double strategy of deterrence and rapprochement. Britain’s decision to leave the E.U. and the chaos that has since reigned in London have buttressed Washington’s appraisal that Berlin is the most important partner in Europe – and must accordingly take over more leadership responsibility in the future.
“There is no question that Germany has become the dominant country in Europe, both economically and politically,” said former U.S. NATO ambassador Nicholas Burns. “This means that we have to invest more in the relationship with Germany.” Since Mr. Burns is an adviser to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, his words carry considerable weight.
Richard Haass, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, likewise believes that the special relationship of the Americans to Great Britain will suffer because of Brexit. Germany will benefit from that situation, perhaps more than Berlin would like.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is preparing Germans about what leadership responsibility entails: “This certainly means that a country like Germany, which today spends 1.2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, and the United States, which spends 3.4 percent of GDP on defense, must come closer to convergence,” she said, warning that the country couldn’t keep hoping others would carry the defense burden.
In Washington, where President Barack Obama recently castigated European allies as “free riders,” this change of heart will be greeted with satisfaction.
Matthias Brüggmann heads Handelsblatt’s international desk. Moritz Koch is a Handelsblatt correspondent working from Washington D.C. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com