BERLIN – The German Defense Ministry sent an armored train home from a NATO mission in Lithuania on Thursday after several of its members were suspected of sexually abusing a comrade and perpetrating racist and anti-Semitic harassment from ailments affecting the country’s armed forces plague.
The 30-strong platoon will be disbanded upon its return to Germany and all soldiers found guilty of crimes or misconduct will be severely punished, said German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. The platoon members were among the roughly 600 German soldiers who served in Lithuania, one of the three Baltic countries where NATO and Poland have deployed troops in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the incursions into Ukraine.
The incident in Lithuania is the latest humiliation for the German armed forces, which have struggled for years to identify and weed out right-wing extremists from their ranks, while commanders struggle to maintain the image of a nimble, modern armed force despite the lack of troops. Last year, Germany had to disband an elite special unit after it found it had been infiltrated by right-wing extremists.
The latest episode is more than embarrassing; it risks undermining confidence in the Bundeswehr’s ability to lead the 1,300-strong combat group in Lithuania, which includes troops from Belgium, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Norway, Iceland and Luxembourg.
“The misconduct of some soldiers in Lithuania is a slap in the face for all those in the army who serve for the security of our country day in and day out,” said Kramp-Karrenbauer on Twitter. “This derailment damages the reputation of Germany and its army and is punished with the severest punishment.”
The Ministry of Defense said Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer had turned to her Lithuanian counterpart to discuss the incident, but did not provide any further details of the discussion, citing an ongoing investigation.
NATO declined to issue an official statement on the German withdrawal. Alliance spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said disciplinary issues were a matter for the country concerned.
An initial investigation into the misconduct also found that 569 rounds of small arms ammunition were apparently missing, Cmdr. Christina Routsi, a spokeswoman for the Bundeswehr, announced this on Wednesday. The military authorities only learned of the incidents last week and the chief of the Bundeswehr commando had sent a team of investigators to investigate the matter, she said.
“There are initial suspected violations of military duties, such as the duty of comradeship, the duty of faithful service or the duty of obedience,” said Commander Routsi. “But it is even worse that it is also about criminal offenses, such as sexual assault, insults, possibly with racist or anti-Semitic connotations, as well as extremist behavior.”
This also included singing a song for Adolf Hitler’s birthday on April 20, in violation of the orders of a sergeant, reported the German magazine Der Spiegel on Monday. The sergeant then did not report the incident, it was said.
NATO forces are battalion-sized multinational combat groups with armor that rotate to make them appear non-permanent. The intention is to increase deterrence, to try to prevent Russia from entering the four countries where the troops are stationed and to reassure its citizens that NATO is in their defense as promised in Article 5 of its founding treaty comes.
Moscow has repeatedly tried to destabilize the Western alliance through an active disinformation campaign. Shortly after the German troops arrived, reports circulated on the Internet that one of them had raped a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl. NATO investigated the reports, found them to be false, and blamed Russia for their dissemination.
Steven Erlanger contributed the reporting from Brussels.