BRUSSELS • Germany, Poland and Sweden have expelled three Russian diplomats in a coordinated retaliation for Russia's expulsion of three European Union diplomats while EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell was visiting Moscow last week.
The tit-for-tat expulsions on Monday 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 destabilise it and the Kremlin rejects what it sees as foreign interference.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the removal of the diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden - who Moscow accused of taking part in protests last month against jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny - came a day before Mr Borrell's trip.
Germany's Foreign Office said its diplomat who was booted out by Moscow was only "carrying out his task of reporting on developments on the spot in a legal fashion". Sweden echoed Germany's stance, calling the expulsions by Moscow "unacceptable".
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".
Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova said the three EU countries' actions were "unjustified, unfriendly and a continuation of the same series of actions the West is taking against our country, which we qualify as interference in internal affairs", according to Russian news agencies.
In a blog post released late on Sunday, Mr Borrell said his pleas to Russia to halt the expulsions were ignored. But the executive European Commission said it had no regrets about Mr Borrell's trip to Moscow last week, as Russia was on a course towards confrontation - which Mr 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. "A trip is not a success or a failure on the basis of what happens during a particular moment."
Mr Peskov said Russian officials "were not the initiators of the collapse in relations".
Mr Borrell was yesterday set to 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.
Poland on Monday convened a two-hour-long video call with EU states that was joined by envoys from Britain, the United States, Canada and Ukraine, as well as Navalny's allies, Mr Vladimir Ashurkov and Mr Leonid Volkov, to discuss policy on Russia.
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.
Mr Borrell went to Moscow to seek Navalny's release and to try to relaunch EU-Russia relations.
But in Sunday's blog post, he wrote that the trip had been "very complicated".
"Russia is progressively disconnecting itself from Europe and looking at democratic values as an existential threat," Mr Borrell wrote. "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 it is also a major energy supplier that helped the West in areas such as upholding the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.