Germany has learned the truth about Russia, says Minister

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German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen made a brief visit to Latvia Tuesday, taking the opportunity to pledge ongoing support for the region's security while admitting her country had initially underestimated the threat posed by Russia.

Speaking after talks with her Latvian counterpart Raimonds Vejonis, von der Leyen said:

"In the beginning when the Russian Ukrainian crisis emerged... Germany found it difficult to accept how radically the position of the Kremlin had changed. It changed 180 degrees. Then we actually saw the evidence: the hybrid war waged by Russia, then the annexation of Crimea which convinced the population of Germany... it was a learning process for us."

"We understood we had to be much more present in all the NATO member states including Latvia," von der Leyen said.

She also had warm words for NATO's strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (STRATCOMCOE) in Riga, which she visited, saying she learned a lot about the strikingly similar techniques of propaganda and disinformation used by the Kremlin and Islamic State.

"It's a very professional center... we see that Islamic State and the Kremlin are both using very strong propaganda elements in various combinations, so NATO has to strengthen its own strategic communication response. We don't have to counter the propaganda with propaganda, we are planning to spread our own information... to provide unbiased coverage."

"We fully understand your concerns, but we continue to pursue diplomatic channels [with Russia]," she said. 

Vejonis said a permanent NATO presence in Latvia was required - while cleverly expanding the definition to 'permanent' to include temporary rotations of troops on training exercises.

"The security situation has changed for good and we are quite concerned about this development in the Baltic countries. Peace in Europe is a joint responsibility... the security of the Baltic states is the basis for ensuring the security of Europe," Vejonis said, repeating his pledge that Latvia would raise its defense spending from 1% of GDP at present to 2% by the end of 2018.

"We must ensure the active, permanent presence of NATO troops here in Latvia, which can be done through training or a rotation basis... clearly we on our own cannot defend the region, which is why we need to expand our own armed forces and our cooperation with NATO allies," Vejonis said.

Von der Leyen came to Latvia from Estonia where she was presented with a clear call for an increased and permanent German military presence by Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas.

"Estonia believes that the more permanent presence of European allies in Estonia and in the Baltic region could take place under the leadership of Germany,” said Rõivas after his meeting with von der Leyen.

Von der Leyen's visit comes during a busy week of Latvian-German diplomacy with German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier reportedly due in Riga by the end of the week.

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