Germany, Poland and Sweden have each expelled a Russian diplomat in a coordinated act of retaliation over the expulsion of three EU officials by Moscow while the bloc’s foreign policy chief was visiting last week.
The tit-for-tat expulsions on Monday underscored the volatility in east-west relations and an erosion of trust among former cold war foes, as the west accuses Moscow of trying to destabilise it and the Kremlin rejects what it sees as foreign interference.
The EU executive defended Josep Borrell over his trip to Russia where he said he had learned of the initial expulsions via social media while speaking with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, on Friday.
The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said on Monday the removal of diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden, who were accused by Moscow of taking part in protests last month against jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, took place a day before Borrell’s trip.
Germany’s foreign office, in a statement regarding its ejection of a Russian diplomat, said the German official booted out by Moscow was only “carrying out his task of reporting on developments on the spot in a legal fashion”.
Poland’s foreign ministry said it ordered a member of Russia’s consulate in the city of Poznan to leave “in accordance with the principle of reciprocity and in coordination with Germany and Sweden”.
The Swedish foreign minister, Ann Linde, said Stockholm’s action was a “clear response to the unacceptable decision to expel a Swedish diplomat who was only performing his duties”.
Russia’s foreign ministry said the EU countries’ action against its diplomats was “unjustified and unfriendly”, the Interfax news agency reported.
In a blog released late on Sunday, Borrell said his pleas to Russia to halt the expulsions were ignored. The former Estonian defence chief Riho Terras, now an EU lawmaker, has started a campaign calling for the high representative’s resignation.
But the executive of European commission said it had no regrets over Borrell making his first trip to Moscow as the coordinator of EU foreign policy because Russia was set on a course towards confrontation.
“The trip was necessary. One doesn’t give up on a trip because it looks difficult,” the commission spokesperson Eric Mamer said in Brussels. “A trip is not a success or a failure on the basis of what happens during a particular moment.”
Peskov told reporters Russian officials “were not the initiators of the collapse in relations”.
On Tuesday Borrell will address the European parliament, which has called for sanctions to stop the completion of the Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline between Russia and Germany. Some EU states were intensifying a push for new western sanctions against Moscow, two diplomats said.
Poland convened a two-hour video call with EU states on Monday that was joined by envoys from Britain, the US, Canada and Ukraine, as well as two allies of Navalny, Vladimir Ashurkov and Leonid Volkov, to discuss policy on Russia, including potential sanctions.
Navalny was jailed on 2 February after a Russian court ruled he had violated the terms of a suspended sentence in an embezzlement case that he says was trumped up.
During the official visit, Borrell and Lavrov gave a news conference at which the Russian minister described the EU as “an unreliable partner” and the Spaniard praised Russia’s Covid-19 vaccine.
Borrell had gone to Moscow to seek Navalny’s release and to try to relaunch EU-Russia relations, but in the blogpost he said Friday’s news conference had been “aggressively staged” and the trip had been “very complicated”.
“Russia is progressively disconnecting itself from Europe and looking at democratic values as an existential threat,” wrote Borrell. “It will be for member states to decide the next steps, and yes, these could include sanctions.”