The German government is declaring 40 Russian diplomats “undesirable persons”, foreign minister Annalena Baerbock has said, an act that is tantamount to expulsion from the country.
The announcement on Monday follows similar moves by European partners in recent days as a reaction to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Shortly after the German announcement, France said it would expel 35 Russian diplomats as part of a joint European action. Earlier on Monday, Lithuania threw out its Russian ambassador.
Speaking as Russia faced growing global criticism over allegations that its forces had committed atrocities in Bucha, a town near Kyiv, Germany’s Baerbock said the move was a response to the “unbelievable brutality” the Kremlin had unleashed in Ukraine.
“The images from Bucha speak to unbelievable brutality by the Russian leadership and by those who follow its propaganda with a boundless will to exterminate,” Baerbock said.
Moscow said the German decision to expel a number of Russian diplomats was “unfriendly” and would worsen ties.
“The unfounded reduction in the number of diplomatic staff at Russian missions in Germany will narrow the space for maintaining dialogue between our countries, which will lead to a further deterioration in Russian-German relations,” the Russian embassy in Berlin said in a statement posted on Telegram.
Later on Monday, France announced it would expel dozens of Russian diplomats.
“France decided this evening to expel a number of Russian personnel with diplomatic status stationed in France whose activities are against our security interests,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement.
Dozens of bodies were found in mass graves or littering the streets following the withdrawal of Russian forces from Bucha.
The Kremlin has denied Western allegations that Russian forces were responsible for killing civilians in Bucha.
However, Baerbock said “similar images” were to be feared “in other places that Russian troops have occupied”.
She said it was essential to “stand up for our freedom and be prepared to defend it”.
“That is why the German government has decided to declare a significant number of staff of the Russian embassy, who have worked every day here in Germany against our freedom, against the cohesion of our society, as persona non grata,” she said.
Diplomats a ‘threat’
Baerbock described the diplomats’ presence “as a threat” to the more than 300,000 Ukrainians “who have sought protection here” since the invasion began.
“We will no longer tolerate that, we communicated that to the Russian ambassador this afternoon,” she said.
Baerbock said Germany would take further steps “with our partners” including “imposing harsher sanctions on Russia, decisively expanding support for Ukraine’s fighting forces and bolstering NATO’s eastern flank”.
Earlier, Lithuania said it was expelling the Russian ambassador and would close Russia’s consulate in the port city of Klaipeda. It said its envoy to Moscow “would return in the near future”.
“Lithuania stands in full solidarity with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, who are victims of Russia’s unprecedented aggression,” foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said in a statement.
“The war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine will not be forgotten,” he added.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said the evidence of civilian killings from Bucha was just the “tip of the iceberg” and showed the need for tougher sanctions on Moscow.
“Half measures are not enough any more. I demand most severe sanctions this week, this is the plea of the victims of the rapes and killings. If you have doubts about sanctions go to Bucha first,” he said during a press conference with British foreign minister Liz Truss.
US President Joe Biden on Monday repeated his accusation that Putin was a war criminal and he called for a war crimes trial. Putin “is brutal. And what’s happening in Bucha is outrageous, and everyone’s seen it,” Biden told reporters.
The US and its allies have sought to punish Russia for the invasion by imposing sweeping sanctions but fear further harm to the global economy, which is still recovering from the pandemic. Europe is in a particular bind, since it gets 40 percent of its gas and 25 percent of its oil from Russia.
Putin’s February 24 invasion has left thousands of people dead, according to Ukrainian authorities, and forced more than 4 million Ukrainians to flee their country.
Putin has said the attack is aimed at eliminating a security threat and has demanded that Ukraine drop its bid to join NATO. Kyiv and its allies say the invasion is a war of aggression.