Germany orders four Russian consulates on its soil closed

Germany will drastically reduce Moscow's diplomatic presence on its soil after Russia slashed the number of people Berlin can employ in its embassies and institutions in Russia, a foreign ministry spokesman said on Wednesday.

The exterior of the German embassy in Moscow
Pictured is the German embassy in Moscow. Embassy staff handle most diplomatic duties after the German Foreign Office shut down most of its consulates in Russia in a tit-for-tat move. Photo: Natalia KOLESNIKOVA / AFP

“We have decided to withdraw consent for the operation of four of the five Russian consulates operating in Germany,” the spokesman told a regular government press conference.

“This was communicated to the Russian foreign ministry today,” he added.

The German foreign ministry said at the weekend that hundreds of civil servants and local employees working for German institutions in Russia had been asked to leave the country.

Moscow had put a 350 limit on the number of German personnel in Russia, said the foreign ministry spokesman.

“In order to be able to meet the Russian requirements for limiting our staff, the government has decided to close the German consulates in Kaliningrad, Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk,” the spokesman said on Wednesday.

Operations will be considerably reduced and will be discontinued by November, he said.

Germany’s embassy in Moscow and its consulate in St Petersburg will not be affected.

“For the Russian presence in Germany, our decisions apply reciprocally… in order to ensure a balance of the mutual presences both in terms of personnel and structure,” the spokesman said.

According to the German foreign ministry, Russia will slash the number of people that Berlin can employ in its embassies or institutions in Russia in the education and cultural sectors starting from June.

Several hundred people are affected, including officials from the embassy and consulate, but mostly employees of the Goethe cultural institute in the country, German schools and nurseries, the ministry said.

READ ALSO: Germany justifies expulsion of Russian diplomats over espionage threats

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Germany, Czech Republic accuse Russia of cyberattacks

Germany and the Czech Republic on Friday blamed Russia for a series of recent cyberattacks, prompting the European Union to warn Moscow of consequences over its "malicious behaviour in cyberspace".

Germany, Czech Republic accuse Russia of cyberattacks

The accusations come at a time of strained relations between Moscow and the West following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the European Union’s support for Kyiv.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said a newly concluded government investigation found that a cyberattack targeting members of the Social Democratic Party had been carried out by a group known as APT28.

APT28 “is steered by the military intelligence service of Russia”, Baerbock told reporters during a visit to Australia.

“In other words, it was a state-sponsored Russian cyberattack on Germany and this is absolutely intolerable and unacceptable and will have consequences.”

APT28, also known as Fancy Bear, has been accused of dozens of cyberattacks in countries around the world. Russia denies being behind such actions.

The hacking attack on German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s SPD party was made public last year. Hackers exploited a previously unknown vulnerability in Microsoft Outlook to compromise e-mail accounts, according to Berlin.

Berlin on Friday summoned the acting charge d’affaires of the Russian embassy over the incident.

The Russian embassy in Germany said its envoy “categorically rejected the accusations that Russian state structures were involved in the given incident… as unsubstantiated and groundless”.

Arms, aerospace targeted: BerlinĀ 

German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said the cyber campaign was orchestrated by Russia’s military intelligence service GRU and began in 2022. It also targeted German companies in the armaments and aerospace sectors, she said.

Such cyberattacks are “a threat to our democracy, national security and our free societies”, she told a joint news conference in Prague with her Czech counterpart Vit Rakusan.

“We are calling on Russia again to stop these activities,” Faeser added.

Czech government officials said some of its state institutions had also been the target of cyberattacks blamed on APT28, again by exploiting a weakness in Microsoft Outlook in 2023.

Czech Interior Minister Rakusan said his country’s infrastructure had recently experienced “higher dozens” of such attacks.

“The Czech Republic is a target. In the long term, it has been perceived by the Russian Federation as an enemy state,” he told reporters.

EU, NATO condemnation

The German and Czech findings triggered strong condemnation from the European Union.

“The malicious cyber campaign shows Russia’s continuous pattern of irresponsible behaviour in cyberspace, by targeting democratic institutions, government entities and critical infrastructure providers across the European Union and beyond,” EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said.

The EU would “make use of the full spectrum of measures to prevent, deter and respond to Russia’s malicious behaviour in cyberspace”, he added.

State institutions, agencies and entities in other member states including in Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia and Sweden had been targeted by APT28 in the past, the statement added.

The latest accusations come a day after NATO expressed “deep concern” over Russia’s “hybrid actions” including disinformation, sabotage and cyber interference.

The row also comes as millions of Europeans prepare to go to the polls for the European Parliament elections in June, and concerns about foreign meddling are running high.

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky told AFP that “pointing a finger publicly at a specific attacker is an important tool to protect national interests”.

One of the most high-profile incidents so far blamed on Fancy Bear was a cyberattack in 2015 that paralysed the computer network of the German lower house of parliament, the Bundestag. It forced the entire institution offline for days while it was fixed.

In 2020, the EU imposed sanctions on individuals and entities linked to the APT28 group over the incident.