Moscow’s expulsion of three diplomats last week prompts coordinated tit-for-tat response from Germany, Poland, Sweden.
Russia has said it is prepared to cut ties with the European Union, should the bloc follow through with a threat to impose punishing sanctions on Moscow, as the row over Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny escalates.
On Friday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in televised remarks that Russia is ready to retaliate if the EU takes punitive action.
“If we see again, as we have felt more than once, that sanctions imposed in some areas create risks to our economy, including in the most sensitive spheres, then yes,” Lavrov said.
“We don’t want to be isolated from international life, but we must be ready for that. If you want peace, you must prepare for war.”
Western powers, along with thousands of Russian protesters, have been calling for Navalny’s release from jail.
He was imprisoned after returning to Moscow last month, having flown in from Berlin where he was treated following an alleged poisoning attack he blames on Russian officials.
He was jailed having violated the terms of a suspended sentence relating to a case in 2014, which he has alleged was politically motivated.
Navalny appeared in court again on Friday, on a separate charge of slander which he has also denounced as politically motivated.
As calls to free Navalny grew, the EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, on Tuesday said he would recommend sanctions during a meeting of EU ministers later this month.
Borrell visited Russia last week for talks with Lavrov, a move that marked the first visit by a top EU official to Moscow since 2017 and drew condemnation from some of the bloc’s member states.
During Borrell’s visit, Russia announced the expulsion of diplomats from Sweden, Germany and Poland, accusing them of participating in illegal protests last month against Navalny’s jailing.
EU powerhouses France and Germany have said there must be a response to Russia’s actions.
Germany, which expelled a member of the Russian embassy in Berlin in a tit-for-tat move on Monday, described Lavrov’s remarks on Friday as “disconcerting”.
“These statements are really disconcerting and incomprehensible,” a foreign ministry spokeswoman told reporters in Berlin.
Moscow has dismissed foreign criticism of its handling of Navalny’s case as external interference and accused the West of hysteria and double standards.
Navalny appeared in court on Friday over allegations he defamed a World War II veteran who took part in a promotional video backing constitutional reforms last year.
Navalny described the people in the video as traitors without a conscience and corrupt lackeys, and accuses authorities of using slander charges to smear his reputation.
His comment, he maintains, was not specifically directed against the veteran in question.
At the hearing, the grandson of the veteran, who is in his 90s, asked Navalny for a public apology, prompting Navalny to refuse, saying the veteran was being exploited for political ends.
The charge against Navalny, if proven, is punishable by up to two years in jail. But his lawyer has said that he cannot face a custodial sentence because the alleged crime was committed before the law was changed to make it a jailable offence.
It remains unclear whether the judge in the case agrees with that analysis. News agency RAPSI cited a lawyer as saying he could face up to a 30-day jail sentence.
Security at Friday’s court hearing was heavy. Police and state bailiffs wearing body armour and carrying weapons were deployed inside the court and around it and the state prosecutor arrived for the hearing with three bodyguards.
More than 11,000 people have been arrested for taking part in pro-Navalny demonstrations to date, according to protest-monitoring group OVD-Info. Moscow has branded the protests illegal, stating they did not receive official approval to go ahead and risked spreading COVID-19.
Navalny’s allies have called on Russians to hold smaller-scale demonstrations on Sunday to avoid arrest, urging them to gather for 15 minutes in residential courtyards.