BRUSSELS—Germany, Poland and Sweden expelled three Russian diplomats in a coordinated retaliation on Feb. 8 for the expulsion of three European Union diplomats by Russia while the EU’s foreign policy chief was visiting Moscow last week.
The tit-for-tat expulsions underscore the volatility in East-West relations and an erosion of trust among former Cold War foes, as the West accuses Moscow of trying to destabilize 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 expulsions via social media while speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Feb. 5.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Feb. 8 that the removal of diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden, 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 diplomat 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.”
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said Stockholm’s action was a “clear response to the unacceptable [Russian] 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,” Interfax news agency reported.
Appeal Ignored, Borrell Says
In a blog released late on Feb. 7, Borrell said his pleas to Russia to halt the expulsions were ignored. Estonia’s former defense chief Riho Terras, now an EU lawmaker, has started a campaign to call for Borrell’s resignation.
But the executive European Commission said it had no regrets about Borrell making his first trip to Moscow as the coordinator of EU foreign policy because Russia was on a course toward confrontation—which Borrell sought to avert.
“The trip was necessary. One doesn’t give up on a trip because it looks difficult,” Commission spokesman 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 that Russian officials “were not the initiators of the collapse in relations.”
Borrell on Feb. 9 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 are now intensifying a push for new Western sanctions against Moscow, two diplomats said.
Poland convened a two-hour-long video call with EU states on Feb. 8 that was joined by envoys from Britain, the United States, Canada, and Ukraine, as well as two allies of Navalny, Vladimir Ashurkov and Leonid Volkov, to discuss policy on Russia, including sanctions.
Navalny was jailed on Feb. 2 after a Russian court ruled he had violated the terms of a suspended sentence in an embezzlement case that he says was trumped up.
‘Disconnecting’ East and West
During Borrell’s visit, he 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 went to Moscow to seek Navalny’s release and to try to relaunch EU–Russia relations. But in his Feb. 7 blog post, he said the Feb. 5 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.”
EU foreign ministers will discuss Russia on Feb. 22.
Russia has been under Western economic sanctions since it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 but is also a major energy supplier that helps the West in areas such as upholding the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
By Robin Emmott and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber