Russia on Friday said it was expelling diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden for participating in unauthorised demonstrations in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, a move the EU’s top diplomat and several European leaders condemned as “unjustified” and “completely unfounded”.
The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement that an unspecified number of diplomats from the three EU countries took part in "illegal demonstrations" on January 23 and had been declared persona non grata. Tens of thousands of people across Russia took to the streets that day to protest the arrest of Navalny, the Kremlin's most prominent critic.
"They were ordered to leave Russia in the near future," the ministry said, adding that Moscow expects diplomats from the countries to "strictly follow the norms of international law" in the future.
The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell "strongly condemned" the expulsions when he was informed of it during a meeting in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a spokesman said.
"During the meeting with FM Lavrov, HRVP Borrell learned that three European diplomats are going to be expelled from Russia," EU spokesman Peter Stano said, referring to Borrell's position as High Representative of the European Union.
"The HRVP strongly condemned this decision and rejected the allegations that they conducted activities incompatible with their status as foreign diplomats. The decision should be reconsidered."
Merkel slams ‘unjustified’ explusions, Poland summons Russian ambassador
Reacting to the announcement Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel denounced the expulsions as "unjustified".
"We consider these expulsions to be unjustified. We believe it is yet another aspect that can be observed right now of Russia being quite far from the rule of law," she said.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said earlier that the move would "not go unanswered".
The Swedish foreign ministry also called the decision to expel one of its diplomats "completely unfounded".
"The ministry considers this as completely unfounded, which we have also told our Russian counterpart", the Swedish foreign ministry said in written remarks to AFP, adding that it "reserves the right to an appropriate response".
Poland meanwhile summoned the Russian ambassador in Warsaw and the Polish foreign ministry issued a statement noting that, "The Polish side expects the Russian authorities to reverse this erroneous decision...Otherwise, Poland leaves itself the option to take appropriate steps."
French President Emmanuel Macron joined the chorus of condemnations, saying he "very strongly" condemned Moscow's behaviour towards Navalny from his poisoning to his arrest and to the expulsion of foreign diplomats.
"I stand in solidarity with the three countries that have had their diplomats expelled," Macron told a news conference following a virtual meeting of the France-German Defence and Security Council.
EU-Russia ties at 'low point'
The expulsion announcement came as Borrell, during a meeting with his Russian counterpart Lavrov, appealed for Navalny's release and for the launch of an investigation over his poisoning," Borrell told a news conference alongside Lavrov, referring to Navalny's poisoning in Russia in August.
"Our relationship is indeed in a difficult moment," Borrell said, adding that "certainly our relations are under severe strain and the Navalny case is a low point".
Speaking in turn, Lavrov said the EU and Russia were at odds over many issues, warning of "unpredictable consequences" should relations deteriorate further.
Regarding the threat of EU sanctions in the Navalny case, Lavrov added that "Russia considers the European Union to be an unreliable partner."
The EU’s ties with Russia have been in the doldrums since Moscow seized Crimea and began fuelling the war in Ukraine in 2014 – and there are concerns about its involvement in Belarus, Syria, Libya, central Africa and the Caucasus.
Borrell was eager to sound out his veteran counterpart on the chances of cooperation on issues including enlisting Russia’s help in reviving the Iran nuclear deal and tackling climate change. But the jailing of Navalny and detention of thousands of demonstrators across Russia by baton-wielding security dominated his visit.
Germany sticking with Nord Stream for 'time being'
In Europe, calls are growing from some nations for the EU to bulk up on sanctions it slapped on six Russian officials in October over the nerve agent poisoning that left Navalny fighting for his life in Germany.
There have also been calls for Germany to halt the highly contentious Nord Stream 2 pipeline project to bring Russian gas to Europe. But Merkel on Friday said Germany is sticking with its support for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline "for the time being".
Speaking to reporters after a virtual meeting with Macron, Merkel said, "In connection with the events in Russia, we have already said that we reserve the right to continue sanctions, especially against individuals."
But, she added, "the position on Nord Stream 2 is not affected by this for the time being; this is a project on which you know the position of the federal government," Merkel said.
It was a "diplomatic duty" to keep open channels of communication with Europe's giant eastern neighbour, she added.
Germany's position is that Nord Stream 2 is a commercial project. However, Merkel expanded on her description of the pipeline, which she said she discussed openly with Macron.
"On the one hand, this is a commercial project, on the other hand, it has political implications and plays a big role in the transatlantic area," Merkel said.
Washington has long argued the pipeline will increase Russian leverage over Europe. New US President Joe Biden believes it is a "bad deal for Europe".
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)