Russia expels European diplomats over Navalny protests, defying the West

People clash with police during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia on Jan. 31. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

MOSCOW — Russia on Friday expelled three European diplomats whom it accused of participating in illegal protests in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny — a move announced as the European Union’s foreign policy chief was visiting Moscow and as Navalny faced a new criminal trial.

The timing of the expulsions of diplomats from Germany, Poland, and Sweden seemed intended to send a message both at home and abroad. In the West, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, had been criticized for going ahead with a trip to Moscow this week despite the jailing of Navalny and for playing down the possibility of new sanctions against Russia.

The Kremlin’s decision to expel diplomats from three EU member states on the same day as Borrell’s visit signaled that Russia was not prepared to compromise on the Navalny case. Hours before the Foreign Ministry announced the expulsions, Borrell called for Navalny’s freedom at a news conference alongside Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.

For Russia’s domestic audience, the expulsions served as the latest example of what the Kremlin has described as Western interference fomenting public discontent. The Foreign Ministry said representatives of Germany, Poland, and Sweden had been summoned and notified that three of their embassies’ diplomats had been identified as participants in unauthorized pro-Navalny rallies Jan. 23.

“It was underscored that such actions from their side are unacceptable and do not accord with their diplomatic status,” the Foreign Ministry said. “They have been ordered to leave the Russian Federation as soon as possible.”

Borrell said he learned of the expulsions during his meeting with Lavrov and “strongly condemned” them. Sweden called the expulsion of its diplomat “completely unfounded.” Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said she had learned of them during a video conference with President Emmanuel Macron of France on Friday.

“We consider these expulsions to be unjustified and believe them to be another facet of the detachment from the rule of law that can be observed in Russia at this time,” Merkel said.

Navalny survived a nerve-agent poisoning in Siberia in the summer and recovered in Germany, accusing President Vladimir Putin of having tried to kill him. Then he returned to Moscow last month despite facing near-certain arrest.

His arrival set off the biggest nationwide anti-Kremlin protests of recent years and brought an enormous crackdown on the opposition, with more than 10,000 arrests in the last three weeks. The Kremlin’s show of force suggests that Putin sees the longtime gadfly as a significant threat — and that the president will not shy away from bringing the government’s vast resources to bear on stifling dissent.

The Kremlin denies any involvement in Navalny’s poisoning and says that detentions at unauthorized protests are justified and lawful. On Friday, Navalny faced a new criminal trial — this time on charges of slandering a war veteran — while his supporters geared up for what they expect to be a yearslong battle against the Kremlin.

The start of the new trial came three days after a different court sentenced Navalny to two years and eight months in prison for violating his parole on a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Europe’s top human rights court later ruled was politically motivated.

The trial, in which Navalny is not expected to face more prison time, appeared to be a vehicle for the Kremlin to tie his team up further in the courts while also giving the state news media a fresh opportunity to tar the opposition leader’s image. The slander offense that Navalny is being tried for was punishable by a fine or community service when he was charged with it last year, though lawmakers have since increased the potential punishment to up to two years in prison.

Prosecutors accuse Navalny of slandering a World War II veteran in social media posts last year. The posts criticized people who support Putin’s constitutional amendments approved in July that allow him to remain in power until 2036.

“You’re using him and his medals to defend Putin the thief and all of his thieving friends,” Navalny said in court Friday, according to a recording.

Navalny can still appeal his prison sentence in the previous trial, and his allies are working to prepare their supporters for a long fight ahead.

One of Navalny’s top aides, Leonid Volkov, said his camp would not be calling for more street protests in the coming weeks because it needed to regroup before nationwide parliamentary elections that are scheduled for September.

“This is a path that could take several years, but this is our plan,” Volkov said. “We need to preserve our candidates for the election, and we need to preserve our campaign offices.”

The Navalny camp’s strategy is to build up pressure on the Kremlin and chip away at Putin’s legitimacy, with the expectation that sooner or later, his authority will collapse amid discontent in the general public and in the ruling elite.

Navalny’s allies abroad, including Volkov, are also increasingly engaging with Western governments in the hopes of persuading them to impose sanctions on people close to Putin.

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