BERLIN — Germany’s defense ministry sent home a tank platoon from a NATO mission in Lithuania on Thursday after several of its members came under suspicion of sexually assaulting a fellow soldier, and engaging in racist and anti-Semitic harassment, adding an international embarrassment to a list of woes plaguing the country’s armed forces.
The 30-member platoon will be disbanded upon its return to Germany and any soldiers found guilty of crimes or misconduct will be severely punished, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s defense minister, said. The members of the platoon were among roughly 600 German soldiers serving in Lithuania, one of the three Baltic countries where, along with Poland, NATO has put troops in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea and incursions into Ukraine.
The incident in Lithuania is the latest humiliation for Germany’s armed forces, which have been struggling for years to identify and weed out far-right extremists in their ranks, even as commanders struggle to maintain an image of a nimble, modern force despite a lack of equipment and recruits. Last year, Germany was forced to disband an elite special forces unit after finding that it had been infiltrated by far-right extremists.
More than an embarrassment, the latest episode risks undermining faith in the capability of the German Army to lead the 1,300-strong battle 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 day in, day out for the security of our country,” Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer said on Twitter. “This derailment damages the reputation of Germany and its army and will be met with the most severe punishment possible.”
The Defense Ministry said Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer had reached out to her Lithuanian counterpart to discuss the incident, but gave no further details of their discussion, citing an ongoing investigation.
NATO declined to make an official comment about the German platoon withdrawal. Oana Lungescu, the spokeswoman for the alliance, said that disciplinary issues were a matter for the country concerned.
An initial investigation into the misconduct also found that 569 rounds of ammunition for handguns appeared to be missing, Cmdr. Christina Routsi, a spokeswoman for the armed forces, said on Wednesday. Military authorities first learned of the incidents last week and the head of the German Armed Forces Operations Command had sent a team of investigators to look into the matter, she said.
“There are initial suspicions of violations of soldierly duties, such as the duty of comradeship, the duty to serve faithfully or the duty of obedience,” Commander Routsi said. “But what is even worse is that there are also criminal offenses at issue, such as sexual assault, insults, possibly with racist or anti-Semitic connotations, as well as extremist behavior.”
That included singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on April 20, in violation of a sergeant’s order, the German magazine Der Spiegel reported on Monday. The sergeant then failed to report the incident, it said.
The NATO troops are multinational, battalion-sized battle groups, with armor, that rotate so as to appear that they are not permanent. The intention is to enhance deterrence, to try to prevent Russia from invading the four countries where the troops are based, and to reassure their citizens that NATO will come to their defense as promised under Article 5 of its founding treaty.
Moscow has made repeated attempts to destabilize the Western alliance through an active misinformation campaign. Shortly after the arrival of the German troops, reports circulated online 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 spreading them.
Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Brussels.