Russia expelled three EU diplomats - from Germany, Poland and Sweden - for their alleged participation in rallies supporting jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, the Foreign Ministry said on Friday, even as the EU's top envoy visited Moscow.
The Russian opposition figure's sentencing by a Moscow court to three-and-a-half years in a penal camp for a probation violation led to mass demonstrations across the nation and criticism from leaders around the world.
The envoys from the Swedish and Polish consulates in St Petersburg and an employee of the German embassy in Moscow were found to have participated in the unauthorized protests on January 23 in support of Navalny, the ministry said.
Moscow, which has repeatedly accused the European Union of interfering in its internal affairs, declared the three diplomats "undesirables" and told them to leave the country immediately.
Such actions were incompatible with their status as diplomats, it said.
Sweden rejected the claims and conveyed to Russia that it considered the charges to be unfounded, a Swedish Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.
Berlin, too, sharply criticized the expulsions and warned there would be consequences.
"We regard this expulsion to be unjustified and believe that it is a another aspect of what is being observed in Russia at the moment, which is rather far removed from the rule of law," Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a press conference in Berlin with French President Emmanuel Macron.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the expulsions were "in no way justified" and would further harm relations between Russia and the EU.
Poland's Foreign Ministry expressed regret at the expulsion and reserved its right to respond in kind if the decision is not reversed.
Russia's decision "will further deepen the crisis in bilateral relations," a statement from the Polish Foreign Ministry said.
Poland summoned the Russian ambassador, informing him that the diplomat in question was "solely carrying out her professional duties" in line with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
Borrell in Moscow
The expulsions came as the EU's highest-ranking diplomat, Josep Borrell, met Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Borrell learned of the expulsions during his trip, before the move was made public.
He said he "strongly condemned" the decision to expel the diplomats and "rejected the allegations that they conducted activities incompatible with their status as foreign diplomats."
"The decision should be reconsidered," he urged in a written statement, stressing the EU's unity and solidarity with the member states involved.
Borrell also underlined his concerns about the Navalny case during his visit.
He "conveyed to Minister Lavrov our deep concern and reiterated our appeal for [Navalny's] release and the launch of an impartial investigation into his poisoning," the EU foreign affairs chief said at a joint press conference in Moscow.
"We have to recognize that, over the last years, our relations have been marked by fundamental differences and by a lack of trust," Borrell noted.
Alongside Navanly's arrest, 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.
"It's true that these relations go through difficult times," Lavrov said. "We hope that the European Union will opt for professional, constructive and pragmatic cooperation," he told reporters at the occasionally tense press conference.
After appealing to the member states to choose dialogue, Lavrov spoke of Europe's "arrogance" with regards to the Navalny case and implied that it was hypocritical of the bloc to call out heavy-handed policing at protests or alleged rule of law infringements.
He indicated situations in Europe where courts were suspected of politically motivated decisions, and pointed to Spain's handling of the Catalonian referendum.
Borrell's visit comes before EU foreign ministers meet later this month, when a joint reaction to developments in Russia is on the agenda. EU leaders are also due to review their dealings with Moscow at a March summit.
Calls are growing for the EU to hit Russia with fresh sanctions, but the bloc is divided between mainly Baltic states pushing for a tougher line and those reluctant to escalate restrictive measures.
Some member states questioned the timing of Borrell's long-planned trip - the first such visit by such a high-ranking EU diplomat since 2017. Some had suggested a postponement.
Navalny, a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was sentenced earlier this week. His lawyers expect him to serve two years and eight months in a penal camp and the remainder under house arrest.
He decided to return to his home country in January, after seeking treatment in Germany for an attack last August on Russian soil with the nerve agent Novichok, banned as a chemical weapon. He was detained upon arrival.
A new trial began against the 44-year-old on Friday, for allegedly insulting a World War II veteran. He faces a fine or hard labour. That trial is set to resume on February 12.
The Kremlin has so far brushed off foreign criticism as external interference.