Germany’s Plans for Enhanced Role in NATO Come Amid Concerns About Russian Actions, Intentions

By James Carstensen | June 16, 2016 | 9:17 PM EDT

German President Joachim Gauck and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite review an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, April 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)

Berlin (CNSNews.com) – Germany’s deepening involvement in a growing NATO deployment along the alliance’s eastern flank is stoking debate here as some politicians voice concerns about Russia’s regional intervention and future intentions, and others call the move unnecessarily provocative.

NATO has confirmed plans to deploy an additional four battalions of 4,000 troops to Poland and the three Baltic States, in its biggest military build-up since the Cold War. Germany, which has long maintained a cautious approach towards military involvement, is expected to lead one of the NATO battalions next year, in Lithuania.

The new battalions are part of a wider plan to be further discussed at NATO’s Warsaw summit on July 8.

“We agreed to enhance our forward presence in the eastern part of the alliance. We are now discussing the size, the scope and the composition of that force.” NATO’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg announced in Brussels on Monday, “This will send a clear signal that NATO stands ready to defend any ally,” he said.

NATO hopes the plan will act as a “deterrent” against Russia taking further aggressive measures after its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in February 2014.

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have been requesting increased NATO support since Russia’s intervention and its backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Stoltenberg on Wednesday accused Russia of “undermining transparency and predictability” by carrying out snap military exercises.

The Russian Defense Ministry hit back at the allegation, saying NATO was espousing a “Russian threat” to create panic and paint the nation as an enemy. Russia says the unannounced military drills are needed to ensure troop readiness in the event of an attack.

Germany’s planned involvement to lead a battalion in Lithuania reflects its long standing positive relationship with the country. During a visit to Berlin by Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite last April 20, Merkel stressed that Lithuania’s protection was “extremely important” to her government.

Germany recently also increased commitment to building its own domestic defense force, raising the defense budget and planned troop numbers, also for the first time since the Cold War – a move at least partly resulting from unease about Russia.

And the concerns go beyond Russia’s actions in Ukraine. With populist far-right parties and groups gaining influence and visibility in Germany, some fear Moscow could use them in a bid to destabilize Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government.

The Welt am Sonntag reported this week that the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU) parties are particularly concerned about possible Russian attempts to destabilize the government by funding groups like the Alternative for Germany (AfD) or the anti-Islam PEDIGA movement.

Stephen Meister, a Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) said Russia was providing support in Germany for “all groups who want to weaken the democratic system.”

(Compounding these concerns, a study presented in Berlin on Wednesday found a significant increase in xenophobia and resentment towards Muslims, and even an increased willingness by far-right extremists to use violence “if necessary,” in support of their beliefs.)

In response, the federal government is planning to strengthen measures to combat spying, propaganda and misinformation from Russia.

“This propaganda is in truth a secret war against Germany and Europe. It is a war of information – especially misinformation. Russia wants to weaken the E.U. and isolate Germany,” CSU representative Hans-Peter Uhl told the Bild newspaper.

Other senior politicians, however, warn that the deepening NATO involvement will only further damage German-Russian relations.

Sahra Wagenknecht, chairman of the left-wing Die Linke party – described by the European Council of Foreign Relations as “pro-Russian” – condemned the move.

“Chancellor Angela Merkel is committing an irresponsible provocation, as, 75 years after the attack on the Soviet Union, she is sending the Bundeswehr to the Russian border,” said Wagenknecht, in reference to the Nazi era.

“E.U. eastward expansion and NATO troop parades are poison for peace and stability in Europe.” she said.