Moscow said it was expelling diplomats from three European Union members saying they participated in protests to support opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, a topic that the bloc’s top diplomat said earlier in the day had brought bilateral relations to a “low point.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the Swedish ambassador, the charge d’affaires of Poland, and the German envoy were summoned to the ministry where a protest was lodged with the diplomats in connection with the “recorded participation of diplomatic employees of the Consulates General of the Kingdom of Sweden and the Republic of Poland in St. Petersburg and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Moscow in illegal actions on January 23.”
The announcement came hours after EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell met his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow, amid a deterioration of relations that has worsened in recent weeks over Navalny’s detention and a crackdown on anti-government protesters.
Many of the EU’s 27 members, along with the United States, have demanded the release of the 44-year-old Kremlin critic, who survived a nerve-agent poisoning in August 2020 that he accuses Putin of ordering.
Borrell “strongly condemned” Moscow’s decision on the expulsions when he was informed of them during a meeting with Lavrov and “rejected the allegations that they conducted activities incompatible with their status as foreign diplomats,” the EU official’s spokesman said.
“The decision should be reconsidered,” said the spokesman, Peter Stano.
Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters that the “unjustified” expulsion of German diplomats was “yet another aspect that can be observed right now of Russia being quite far from the rule of law.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement that the Russian decision is “further damaging relations with Europe” and will “not go unanswered.”
The Polish Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian envoy to Warsaw to protest against Moscow’s move and said it “expects the Russian authorities to reverse this erroneous decision.”
“Otherwise, Poland leaves itself the option to take appropriate steps,” the ministry said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for Sweden’s Foreign Ministry said that one of its diplomats was being expelled from the country and rejected “Russia’s claim that the diplomat participated in the demonstration.”
French President Emmanuel Macron also condemned Russia’s expulsion of European diplomats, saying: “With regards to the Navalny affair, I condemn with the greatest firmness from start to finish what has happened, from his poisoning…to the expulsion of German, Polish, and Swedish diplomats decided by Russia.”
The first visit by a senior EU envoy to Moscow since 2017 started tensely, with Borrell noting as he headed into his first meeting with Lavrov that “our relationship is indeed in a difficult moment.”
“I have conveyed to minister Lavrov our deep concern and reiterated our appeal [for] his release and the launch of an impartial investigation of his poisoning,” Borrell told journalists after the morning round of talks.
Lavrov, who told reporters as he headed into the meeting with Borrell that “a fair review” of Russia-EU relations was “long overdue.”
He also noted that Moscow had noticed how Brussels was increasingly behaving like the United States and imposing unilateral restrictions on countries.
“For Russia, the EU is an unreliable partner,” Lavrov said as the two sides took a break.
While Russian officials have accused the West of interfering, Borrell said before arriving in Moscow that his visit was “not about meddling in internal affairs,” but rather “universal principles and international commitments.” He cited that Russia has signed on as a member of the Council of Europe and as a participating state of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Navalny was sentenced on February 2 to 3 1/2 years in jail for violating the terms of a suspended sentence while recovering in Germany from the poisoning. Because of time already served, the judge said Navalny will spend 2 years and 8 months in prison.