EU still smarting over expulsion of diplomats seen at Navalny demo

Moscow/Brussels - Russia defended the expulsion of three diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden that has strained relations with the European Union, just as the bloc mulls whether to impose yet more sanctions on Moscow.

Russia has no tolerance

"The Russian side has made it clear that it does not intend to tolerate such a thing," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Interfax agency. The envoys allegedly participated in protests in support of the jailed dissident Alexei Navalny.

The EU is still smarting from the move.

News of the expulsion broke while the bloc's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, was on an already tense trip to Moscow, unsuccessfully pushing Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for Navalny's release.

The Russian Foreign Ministry declared the three envoys "undesirable persons", claiming they participated in unauthorized protests in Moscow and St Petersburg on January 23.

Reports on Russian state TV presented the diplomats as criminals, broadcasting surveillance footage of the protests with the diplomats' faces encircled, together with their full names and functions.

Berlin, Stockholm and Warsaw rejected the allegations, saying their representatives were at the protests as observers, not participants.

Poland, which supports taking a tougher line with Russia, called an emergency videoconference with the other 26 EU ambassadors, close associates of Navalny and representatives from the United States, Britain, Canada and Ukraine.

The latest developments "require action" from the EU, Warsaw's embassy in Brussels tweeted.

The bloc is divided between mainly Baltic states pushing for new restrictive measures, and those more reluctant to do so, though political heavyweights like Germany now seem to be coming round.

A unanimous decision is needed for sanctions.

Protests in Russia because of Navalny

On January 23, tens of thousands of people demonstrated across Russia for Navalny's release and against President Vladimir Putin.

Thousands were arrested. The prominent Putin critic was sentenced last week for a probation violation.

Navalny decided to return to his home country in January after seeking treatment in Germany for an attack last August (2020) on Russian soil with the nerve agent Novichok, banned as a chemical weapon.

He was detained upon arrival.

Borrell is now facing questions over the wisdom of the trip, which featured a joint press conference with an at times openly hostile Lavrov, and how well it served the EU's aims.

"My meeting with Minister Lavrov highlighted that Europe and Russia are drifting apart," the EU foreign policy chief wrote in a statement published late Sunday. "It seems that Russia is progressively disconnecting itself from Europe."

Moscow's apparent lack of interest in constructive dialogue "is regrettable, and we will have to draw the consequences," Borrell wrote.

The European Commission stood by the trip. "The main objective was to deliver firm unequivocal clear messages from the EU," spokesperson Peter Stano told reporters in Brussels.

But another - more senior - spokesperson, Eric Mamer, said commission discussions this week would also perhaps include what "lessons that can be drawn from this meeting in Moscow."

EU foreign ministers are set to discuss on February 22 whether to hit Russia with fresh sanctions over the Navalny case.

EU leaders are also planning to take stock of their shared Russia strategy at a March summit.

Alongside Navalny's poisoning, detention and sentencing - the latest flashpoint in relations with Western countries - the EU's relationship with Russia has been under strain for years due to the war in Ukraine and resulting sanctions.