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.
The sentence was tied to a 2014 embezzlement case that is widely considered politically motivated. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in October 2017 that the case was "arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable."
Navalny was back in court again on February 5 for allegedly defaming a World War II veteran who took part in a promotional video backing last year's constitutional reforms, which open a path for Putin to stay in power until 2036 if he chooses to take part in two more presidential elections.
He was charged after describing the veteran and others who appeared in the pro-Kremlin video as "the shame of the country" and "traitors" on Twitter in a June.
Navalny said last summer that the case was part of an unrelenting campaign to stifle his campaign against the Kremlin.
In his first major comments since he was sentenced, Navalny on February 4 called on Russians to overcome fear and free the country from "a bunch of thieves in power."
Navalny said in an Instagram post that "iron doors slammed behind my back with a deafening sound, but I feel like a free man because I feel confident I'm right and thanks to support from you and my family."
U.S. President Joe Biden expressed his support for Navalny later in the day, calling the jailing of the Putin critic a "matter of deep concern to us and the international community" and demanding Russia release him "immediately and without condition."
The Kremlin continues to reject Western and domestic criticism over its jailing of Navalny and a crackdown on his supporters, accusing the West of hysteria and double standards.
The detention of the popular activist upon his return to Russia in mid-January sparked some of the largest anti-government protests in a decade as hundreds of thousands assembled in more than 100 cities around the country. Police detained some 10,000 people in total during the January 23 and January 31 protests.
More than 1,400 people were also detained when demonstrators took to the streets following the court's order to send Navalny to prison. Many of Navalny's aides have been detained, fined, or put under house arrest.
The Russian Foreign Ministry alleged video of the first protest showed the diplomats participating in the event.
"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.
Leonid Volkov, a close aide to Navalny, called for fresh demonstrations later in the year rather than on the weekend of February 6-7 to give the opposition more time to prepare.
"We will properly organize them and definitely hold another big one in spring and summer," he said in a YouTube live stream.
Russia will hold key parliamentary elections on September 17. Navalny and his team are encouraging citizens to vote for politicians running against candidates from the pro-Putin United Russia party.