Moscow has said it is expelling 40 German diplomats in response to the “unfriendly decision” by Berlin to kick out Russian diplomats over the conflict in Ukraine.
Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Monday that it summoned Germany’s ambassador in Moscow and handed him a note “declaring persona non grata 40 employees of German diplomatic institutions in Russia as part of a symmetrical response”.
“A strong protest was made to the head of the German diplomatic mission in Moscow in connection with the openly unfriendly decision of the German government” to expel Russian diplomats, the ministry said.
A total of more than 100 Germans are likely to be affected by the ministry’s decision, with the diplomats’ relatives also forced to leave the country.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in a statement that the move was “expected” but was “in no way justified”.
She said the 40 Russian diplomats previously expelled by Berlin “did not serve diplomacy for a single day” while those expelled by Russia had “not done anything wrong”.
Earlier in April, Germany said it was expelling a “significant number” of Russian diplomats, amid similar moves by other European states, over Ukraine.
Baerbock at the time said the decision was in response to the “unbelievable brutality” of forces from Russia as it invaded its pro-Western neighbour, Ukraine.
She had also described the Russian expellees as spies who had “worked every day here in Germany against our freedom, against the cohesion of our society”, and added that their work was “a threat to those who seek protection in our country”.
The Russian foreign ministry called Baerbock’s words “unacceptable”.
It added that Berlin’s decision was “motivated by an absolutely false assertion that the work of the above mentioned employees was aimed at undermining the ‘freedom of Germany’ and ‘unity of German society’, as well insinuations about what is happening in Ukraine”.
The war in Ukraine and the sanctions subsequently imposed on Russia have seen German-Russian relations disintegrate to an extent not seen since the Cold War.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Monday referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for the war in Ukraine as a sign of his “vicious” cynicism.
Speaking at a meeting with Ukrainian Holocaust survivors in Berlin, Steinmeier said: “Nothing shows as much as the fate of these Holocaust survivors how vicious is the cynicism with which this war has been justified by Putin.”
Putin has argued that his invasion of Ukraine is an effort to stem fascism and to “de-Nazify” the country. There is no evidence that fascism had taken hold in Ukraine in the run-up to the invasion.
Steinmeier has come under fire in recent weeks for what the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany has called a “highly questionable closeness to Russia” over the course of several decades in politics.
The president was once among former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s closest confidants and subsequently served as foreign minister under Chancellor Angela Merkel. Both are seen as the architects of the pro-Russia stance that imploded at the start of the war.
Schroeder himself, who heads the supervisory board of the Russian state energy giant Rosneft and chairs the shareholders’ committee of the pipeline company Nord Stream, has failed to offer any criticism of Putin in the wake of his country’s invasion of Ukraine.