Germany’s foreign minister has criticized NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe as "warmongering” and called for phasing out European Union sanctions against Russia if there is substantial progress in the peace process in Ukraine.
The comments by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, made in interviews published June 19, were the sharpest indications of a division within Germany's ruling coalition over policy towards Russia.
Steinmeier's Social Democrats have backed a more conciliatory stance toward Moscow than Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative bloc, the Christian Democrats.
Merkel has repeatedly said that sanctions imposed against Russia can only be lifted once a peace agreement, known as the Minsk accords, is fully implemented.
"What we should avoid today is inflaming the situation by warmongering and stomping boots," Steinmeier was quoted as telling the German tabloid Bild Am Sonntag.
It is a mistake, he said, to think "you can increase security in the alliance with symbolic parades of tanks near the eastern borders."
NATO is deploying new battalions to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland to ease fears that followed Russia’s annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and the war that later broke out in eastern Ukraine.
The war games the alliance conducted in Poland and Lithuania this month were among the largest since the end of the Cold War. The exercises featured 31,000 troops from 24 NATO and partner nations, including German troops.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on June 16 that Russia is seeking to create "a zone of influence through military means" and said Russia is undergoing "massive militarization" along its borders with countries in the military alliance.
Russia has continually accused the alliance of breaking a promise not to expand into the former Warsaw Pact bloc after the Soviet collapse.
In addition to stepped up aerial patrols by fighter jets and bombers, the Defense Ministry recently announced plans to reorganize deployments of several army corps along western regions, bordering Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic states.
In a speech in St. Petersburg June 17, President Vladimir Putin reiterated the argument that the United States and its allies have used the Ukrainian crisis to "justify the existence of the North Atlantic bloc."
"They need an external adversary, an external enemy, otherwise what's the purpose of this organization?" he said. "There is no Warsaw Pact, no Soviet Union, so whom is it directed against?"
NATO officials will meet in Warsaw next month to formally approve the plans for new deployments along the bloc's eastern flank.
Aleksei Pushkov, the head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's lower house of parliament, welcomed Steinmeier's comments as a "voice of reason."
"Steinmeier spoke against Stoltenberg's course for scaring Russia. Some voices of reason could be heard from behind the curtain of threats and hysterics," Pushkov said in a tweet July 19.
In a separate interview also published on June 19, Steinmeier said the European Union sanctions against Russia should be gradually eased if there is substantial progress in the peace process.
"Sanctions are not an end in themselves. They should rather give incentives for a change in behavior," Steinmeier told the RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland, a network of local newspapers.
The European Union on June 17 extended for a year a ban on business dealings with the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
The Minsk deal calls for a cease-fire between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces, along with a range of political, economic, and social steps to end the conflict, including holding local elections in the east.