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Schroeder's staff quits as ex-German chancellor resists pressure to cut Kremlin ties

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By Andreas Rinke and Sarah Marsh

BERLIN (Reuters) - The entire staff of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's taxpayer-funded office have quit as the long-time friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin resists growing pressure to cut his ties to the Kremlin following its invasion of Ukraine.

Schroeder, who took several jobs at Russian energy companies after leaving office in 2005, and other politicians from the ruling Social Democrats (SPD) have come under increasing scrutiny in recent weeks for their lobbying for Russian firms.

Such links have become a growing liability for Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who was long accused of being soft on Russia over the Ukraine crisis until his government last week did an about-face on various energy and defence policies.

Over the weekend, SPD leaders urged Schroeder to give up his Russian posts as other former European politicians have, including France's former Prime Minister Francois Fillon.

But Schroeder has resisted such pressure and, while he expressed rare criticism of Russia over its invasion in a statement last Thursday, he also said mistakes had been made "on both sides". Europe must ensure it does not cut its ties to Russia completely, he added.

Staffer Albrecht Funk told Reuters that he, two secretaries and a driver had asked to be reassigned to other jobs in the chancellery, out of Schroeder's office. Funk declined to comment on the reason.

Reuters was unable to reach Schroeder for comment. The chancellery did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Politicians of all stripes and Germany's taxpayers association have called in recent weeks for the state to stop funding the office Schroeder is legally due as a former chancellor.

Putin piled lavish praise on Schroeder during Chancellor Scholz's visit to Moscow two weeks ago, saying it was thanks to him that Germans' gas bills were lower than elsewhere.

"He speaks only for himself, not the government," said Scholz.

Critics say Germany's reliance on Russia for half its gas needs long constrained its ability or appetite to get tough with Russia.

On Monday, the SPD premier of a northern state that set up a public foundation to help Gazprom complete the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany, despite U.S. sanctions, said it would be wound down.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke and Sarah Marsh; Editing by Alex Richardson)