Germany, Poland and Sweden said they would each expel one Russian diplomat in retaliation for Russia’s expulsion of three European diplomats last week.
The co-ordinated move came after Moscow accused three diplomats — one Swedish, one German, and one Polish — of attending protests in support of the jailed opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, and declared them personae non gratae.
Tensions between Europe and Russia are rising, and the timing of Moscow’s expulsions last week were an embarrassment for the EU, coming during a visit by its foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
On Monday, Germany’s foreign ministry said it would expel one member of Russia’s embassy in Berlin, arguing Moscow’s initial expulsions last Friday were not justified.
“The German diplomat concerned was simply carrying out his duties as set out in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to inform himself by lawful means about local developments,” a spokesperson said.
In Poland, the foreign ministry announced it would expel a member of staff from Russia’s consulate in Poznan.
“Regardless of pressure from the Russian authorities, Polish diplomats will continue to carry out their duties in the Russian Federation, which they are entitled [to fulfil] on the basis of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations,” the ministry said.
Last Friday, Borrell’s Moscow visit provoked widespread dismay among EU diplomats over both his perceived missteps and the Russian government’s combative approach. In a joint press conference, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called the EU an “unreliable partner”.
Borrell defended his trip in a strongly-worded blog post on Sunday, saying it showed that Russia did not want a “more constructive dialogue with the EU”.
“As [the] EU, we will have to draw the consequences, reflect carefully on the direction we want to give to our relations with Russia, and proceed in a united manner with determination,” he wrote. “It seems that Russia is progressively disconnecting itself from Europe and looking at democratic values as an existential threat.”
Sweden’s foreign minister Ann Linde said on Twitter that the diplomatic expulsion was “a clear response to the unacceptable decision to expel a Swedish diplomat who was only performing his duties”.
“Russia gave us no choice,” she told Swedish journalists.
The recent spat has strengthened calls from countries most critical of the Kremlin for tougher action against the Russian government, starting with sanctions in the Navalny case.
EU foreign ministers are due to discuss relations with Moscow this month ahead of talks by bloc leaders in March.
Russia’s foreign ministry criticised the reciprocal expulsions and reiterated their accusation that the EU countries were seeking to meddle in Russian affairs.
“Today's decisions made by Poland, Germany, and Sweden are baseless and unfriendly and come as a follow-up to the string of steps and actions which have been undertaken by the West against our country and which we qualify as interference in our internal affairs,” Maria Zakharova, the ministry’s spokeswoman, told state TV.
Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels and Richard Milne in Oslo