The European Union’s top diplomat has warned Moscow it could face new sanctions over the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
The statement on Tuesday described the government of President Vladimir Putin as “merciless, authoritarian and afraid of democracy”.
Josep Borrell said his visit last Friday to Moscow had cemented his view that Russia wanted to break away from Europe and divide the West.
His remarks are the EU’s harshest criticism of Moscow since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“The Russian government is going down a worrisome authoritarian route,” said Borrell, who pleaded for Navalny’s release in Moscow and tried in vain to visit him in prison.
He told the European parliament that he believed the Kremlin saw democracy as an “existential threat”.
Borrell’s remarks suggested a hardening of EU attitudes to Russia, a big energy provider to Europe, after years of seeking better ties despite Western sanctions imposed in 2014.
“For some reason, the European Union thinks that it can meddle in our internal affairs,” Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy chairman of Russia’s international affairs committee said on state TV.
Navalny was arrested in January after returning to Russia for the first time since being poisoned last August in Siberia. He blamed Putin for the attack but the Kremlin has dismissed the accusations. His arrest and imprisonment have caused big protests in Russia.
After Borrell’s talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, which Borrell described as heated, Moscow expelled three EU diplomats – representatives of Germany, Poland and Sweden – provoking tit-for-tat expulsions by Berlin, Warsaw and Stockholm.
Lavrov commented that the EU is now “an unreliable partner”.
Many EU lawmakers said the Kremlin had wanted to humiliate Borrell on Friday to send a message that the West should stay out of Russian domestic affairs. At least 81 deputies have called for Borrell’s resignation over his ‘lacklustre’ performance in Moscow.