MOSCOW—Russia said it would expel diplomats from Sweden, Poland and Germany for taking part in what authorities say were unlawful rallies in support of jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny last month.
The ambassador of Sweden, Poland’s chargé d’affaires and a diplomat from the Germany Embassy in Moscow were summoned to Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Friday where they were served with a complaint in connection with “the recorded participation” of diplomatic employees “in illegal actions” on Jan. 23, a ministry statement said.
The Foreign Ministry said diplomatic employees from Sweden and Poland in St. Petersburg and of the German Embassy in Moscow violated diplomatic protocol by participating in the protests. “Such actions on their part are unacceptable and don’t correspond to their diplomatic status,” the statement said. The diplomats who took part in the action have been declared “persona non grata” and were ordered to leave Russia in the near future, the statement said.
The move raises the stakes for the European Union’s support of Mr. Navalny, who has been increasingly portrayed in state television and by pro-Kremlin authorities as an agent of the West. Mr. Navalny was evacuated to Germany where he spent five months recovering after he was poisoned in the Russian region of Siberia last year.
A German military laboratory, as well as labs in France and Sweden said they found Novichok in his system, a military grade nerve agent accessible only to those in Russia’s military and intelligence circles.
Mr. Navalny accuses Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to assassinate him, a charge the Kremlin denies. Earlier this year the EU put sanctions on a number of Russian officials it held responsible for the poisoning of Mr. Navalny.
On Tuesday, a Russian court sentenced Mr. Navalny to 3½ years in prison, but gave credit for about a year already served, in a move that sidelines the Kremlin’s most vocal critic and further angers Mr. Putin’s opponents.
News of the expulsions came as Vice President of the European Commission Josep Borrell was meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow. “I strongly condemned this decision and rejected the allegations that they conducted activities incompatible with their status as foreign diplomats,” Mr. Borrell said. “The decision should be reconsidered.”
Mr. Borrell said that he learned the three European diplomats were going to be expelled from Russia during his talks with Mr. Lavrov.
Mr. Borrell, speaking in Moscow on Friday, said that no EU state had yet proposed sanctions over Mr. Navalny but the bloc said earlier this week that foreign ministers would discuss the issue when they meet later this month and consider what action to take.
Germany said its diplomat was there to gather information, not support the protests. “Russia’s decision…is in no way justified and will further damage the relations with Europe,” said Heiko Maas, Germany’s minister of foreign affairs. “The German diplomat who’s been affected has only fulfilled his task—as outlined in the Vienna Convention for diplomatic relations—of gathering information about an event by using legal means.”
Mr. Maas warned that Germany would respond to Russia’s action if Moscow failed to reconsider the expulsion of its embassy employee.
A Swedish Foreign Ministry press official confirmed the expulsion and echoed Germany’s sentiment that the move was unjustified.
“We strongly reject the Russian claims that the diplomat took part in a demonstration in Russia,” the official said, adding that observing the protests was “a natural part of a diplomat’s core duties.”
The official said “the ministry preserves the right to take appropriate measures in response.”
Poland’s foreign ministry said that it regretted Russia’s decision, which it said would “contribute to the further deepening of the crisis in the bilateral relations between our countries.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. condemned the move to expel the diplomats, tweeting that “this arbitrary and unjustified act is Russia’s latest departure from its international obligations.”
His British counterpart, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, called the expulsions “a crude attempt to distract from Russia’s targeting of opposition leaders, protesters and journalists.”
The U.S. and EU have been vocal in their criticism of Mr. Navalny’s imprisonment and the heavy-handed tactics employed by Russian security services against protesters who took to the streets the past two weekends in support of the opposition activist and to demand his release.
The Russian government has rebuffed comments from Western leaders over Mr. Navalny’s case, saying they are actively interfering in the country’s affairs.
On the day of Mr. Navalny’s trial, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharov said approximately 20 representatives of Western embassies were at the courthouse on Tuesday to attend Mr. Navalny’s hearing.
“It isn’t just interference in internal affairs of a sovereign state,” she said on Facebook. “It is laying bare the unsightly and illegal role of the collective West in attempts to constrain Russia.”
—Bojan Pancevski in Berlin and Laurence Norman in Brussels contributed to this article.
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