Berlin — Germany's military is pulling an entire armored infantry unit out of Lithuania as it investigates claims of extremist, anti-Semitic remarks and a purported sexual assault at a booze-fueled hotel party. An official investigation was launched in Germany after allegations emerged of a raucous party by members of the unit on April 30 at a hotel in the central Lithuanian town of Rukla.
Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced last week that the entire infantry unit would be withdrawn. The 30 soldiers have been based in Lithuania as part of a NATO Enhanced Forward Presence mission — part of the transatlantic alliance's military posturing on Europe's far-eastern flank, close to the border with Russia.
Members of the infantry unit have regularly spent weekends at the hotel for a break from their exercises with Lithuanian and other international partners. In military jargon, the breaks are referred to as "recreational exercise."
On April 30, a small cohort of the unit's members allegedly partied and consumed large amounts of alcohol in one of the hotel rooms. German soldiers at the NATO camp are subject to a general ban on alcohol consumption, which is only lifted on special days such as Christmas or New Year's Eve.
The Bundeswehr is investigating several soldiers over allegations including the sexual assault of a fellow soldier, bullying, threats of violence, and singing anti-Semitic songs. The allegations were brought to light by one of the unit's members who reported to a superior. Videos showing some of the incidents are said to exist, but they have not come out publicly.
Formal proceedings are already underway against at least three soldiers, who have been sent back to Germany. However, the incident was not officially reported until June 8, and the Defense Ministry is now also investigating whether superior officers in Lithuania tried to settle the matter internally, without notifying their own commanders.
The broadening scandal led the country's defense chief to announce the full withdrawal of the unit from Lithuania, but the remaining members were still in the country as of Tuesday.
The Bundeswehr has thus far refused to provide any details about its ongoing investigations. A spokesman for the Operations Command has said only that there were indications of "misconduct" by German soldiers involving "statements of a right-wing radical and anti-Semitic nature," as well as sexual violence and discrimination against a female soldier on the basis of her gender.
All of the accusations are being taken "very seriously," the spokesman said.
The Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) mission in Lithuania is part of NATO's show of force and deterrence against Russia. In the wake of Moscow's unilateral annexation of Crimea fromin 2014, NATO has strengthened its operational readiness along its eastern flank with new troop deployments, including one multinational battalion each in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
NATO's expanded troop presence in eastern Europe has been closely monitored by Russia since the start of the mission, and the deployments have been targeted by disinformation campaigns.
There have already been several attempts, mostly via social media, to spread fake stories about misconduct by German troops in Lithuania. In 2017, for instance, rumors were spread online about a Bundeswehr soldier committing a rape. The allegations were groundless. Badly faked photos purporting to show German troops desecrating Jewish cemeteries have also cropped up on the internet repeatedly, but no such incidents have been reported by officials.
Germany's intelligence service and NATO have said the disinformation, which they consider an attempt to undermine support for the NATO mission in Lithuania.are likely behind
The Bundeswehr has coordinated successfully with local authorities in Lithuania to counter the malicious rumors and prevent them from spreading too far. However, if the allegations against the troops in Rukla do result in punitive action, it would be more than just an embarrassment for Germany.
"The misconduct of some soldiers in Lithuania is a slap in the face of everyone who serves the security of our country day after day in the Bundeswehr," German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said.
She vowed that troops found guilty of the behavior alleged in Rukla would be punished with "the utmost severity," suggesting any soldiers involved could face repercussions under both military and criminal law.