MOSCOW — Russia has deported several Polish and one German diplomat in recent days, the latest in a series of tit-for-tat expulsions that have accompanied mounting tensions between Russia and European governments over the crisis in Ukraine.
In an interview with German ARD television broadcast late Sunday, President Vladimir Putin of Russia said he still believes diplomacy can bring peace to eastern Ukraine, but he said Moscow would not allow the separatists there to be “annihilated.’’
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Monday that “a number of Polish diplomats” were being sent home in retaliation for the “unfriendly and unfounded” expulsion of Russian diplomats from Poland this month.
Separately, the German government said Monday one of its diplomats had been asked to leave Russia in what it called a “retaliatory measure,” confirming a report in Der Spiegel over the weekend.
Relations between Russia and the West are at their worst since the Cold War, despite the tentative cease-fire between the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine’s southeast. Fighting has continued to simmer there, and each side has accused the other of repeatedly violating the agreement.
Meanwhile, Western governments have imposed sanctions on Russia for its seizure of Crimea and its support for the rebels, and Moscow has retaliated with import bans on some Western products.
The rhetoric has been rising. President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine said in an interview with the German newspaper Bild that though Ukraine prefers peace, it is “prepared for a scenario of total war.”
Putin said in the German television interview that he was concerned about “ethnic cleansings” in Ukraine and the possibility that the country could become “a neo-Nazi state.”
He said that Russia would not allow Ukraine “to annihilate everyone there, all of their political foes and opponents,” suggesting that the Russian military could carry on more covert incursions into eastern Ukraine.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany warned in a speech in Sydney on Monday that the mounting frictions could have grave consequences.
Stressing the importance of learning the lessons from the world wars that devastated the Continent, Merkel said that “old-fashioned thinking in spheres of influence, where international rights are being trampled, cannot continue.”
According to a text released by her office, Merkel noted that “there are still powers in Europe that refuse reciprocal respect and conflict resolution through democratic means that follow the rule of the law, that count on the alleged right of the strong and disregard the strength of the law.”
Merkel lamented the damage that had been done to “the friendship that has been established between Russia and Germany in the past 10 to 15 years,” relations that she said were “a good foundation for the development of relations, not only between our two states, but also between Russia and Europe as a whole.”
“It will be a pity if we let it go to waste,” she said.
EU foreign ministers decided Monday to broaden the union’s sanctions against individual leaders of the pro-Russia rebellion but did not adopt any new economic sanctions against Russia.
The diplomatic expulsions have often come with direct or veiled accusations of spying.
The Russian Foreign Ministry statement about the Polish diplomats Monday said they were being deported “for activity incompatible with their status.” It did not give specifics about the expelled diplomats, but an official in the Polish Foreign Ministry said they were three military attaches and one employee in the embassy’s political section.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under the ministry’s rules, said Poland had expelled equivalent people from the Russian embassy in Warsaw several weeks ago.
“We expected Russians to respond in exactly the same manner, and so they did,” the official said. “As far as we are concerned, the case is closed.”
Poland deported the four Russian diplomats in connection with the arrests of a Polish army officer and a Russian-born lawyer. Marek Biernacki, Poland’s minister of justice, said both men were spies for the Main Intelligence Directorate, Russia’s largest foreign intelligence agency.
The German case was similar. The report in Der Spiegel said Germany had expelled a Russian diplomat for spying while stationed at the Russian consulate in Bonn, prompting the Russians to send a German diplomat home.
“We deeply regret this unjustified action and have made this clear to the Russian government,” said a German government official who did not give his name, in keeping with policy regarding sensitive diplomatic issues. He declined to give any further information.
Russia has leveled spying accusations of its own. On Saturday, a report on Russian state television said that Alexejs Holostovs, a former member of the Latvian Parliament, had been expelled from Russia. In the report, Holostovs said he was sent to Russia to spy for Latvia’s intelligence services, which he said were controlled by the CIA.
Russia has also said it arrested an Estonian intelligence officer, Eston Kohver, on Russian soil and said he was carrying $6,000 in cash and a Taurus pistol. Estonia has said that Russian agents crossed the border under the cover of smoke grenades and electronic jamming to abduct Kohver.