Schaeuble Slaps Down Critic of NATO War Games in Eastern Europe

  • Key Merkel ally ridicules comment by German foreign minister
  • No German ‘saber-rattling’ against Russia, finance chief says

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble backed NATO maneuvers in eastern Europe as a response to Russian encroachment, rebuking a fellow cabinet member who portrayed the military exercises as warmongering.

The attack by one of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s top lieutenants on Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier exposes a policy rift within her coalition as German parties jockey for position ahead of general elections due next year. Steinmeier, whose Social Democrats are Merkel’s junior partner, has suggested the U.S.-led alliance is inflaming tension with “war cries” and maneuvers that include German troops.

“I’ve heard plenty about the German military, but that it should now be engaged in saber-rattling -- that’s truly new,” Schaeuble said Tuesday at a conference in Berlin.

As the European Union reached a provisional deal to extend economic sanctions against Russia for another six months, Schaeuble said Germany “naturally” wants good relations with Russia. “But as the chancellor said again and again,” Germany “will not accept the violence or the threat of violence to unilaterally alter rules and borders,” he said.

Coalition tension over how to deal with Russia has been building up for months as German-French diplomacy to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine stalls. Steinmeier and other senior Social Democrats are urging flexibility in easing sanctions on Russia, while Merkel has said President Vladimir Putin needs to comply fully with a peace deal reached last year in Minsk, Belarus, before any penalties can be lifted.

The 28-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization this month held the first large-scale maneuvers in eastern Europe and the Baltic in about a decade.

“What we shouldn’t do is inflame the situation further with loud saber-rattling and war cries,” Steinmeier told Bild am Sonntag newspaper last week.

In contrast, Schaeuble recalled a meeting of EU finance ministers shortly after Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014.

“Our colleagues from Scandinavia and the Baltic states asked us how much we’ll increase our defense budgets,” he told the conference. “That was the question from our Swedish and Baltic colleagues -- because they viewed themselves as directly threatened.”

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