The European Union has warned that 150,000 Russian troops have massed at the borders of Ukraine and that it would hold Moscow responsible for the fate of ailing Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, as a constellation of problems fuel rising tensions with the West.
The bloc’s foreign ministers gathered over a video conference after a weekend in which Washington threatened Moscow with “consequences” if Mr Navalny were to die in jail, and there were tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats after the Czech Republic accused Moscow of involvement in 2014 explosions at an arms depot that killed two.
“The Russian military build-up on the Ukrainian border is very concerning. There are more than 150,000 Russian troops massing at the Ukrainian borders and in Crimea. The risk of further escalation is evident,” the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told journalists, describing extensive equipment including field hospitals.
“It is the highest military deployment of a Russian army in the Ukrainian border ever. It’s clear that it is a matter of concern. When you deploy a lot of troops, a spark can jump here or there.”
Mr Borrell described the health of the prominent opponent of Russian president Vladimir Putin as “critical” and called on authorities to immediately allow Mr Navalny access to medical professionals that he trusts.
“The situation is getting worse, and today we are passing a united message to the Russian authorities. They are responsible for Navalny’s safety and health and we will hold them to account for it,” Mr Borrell said.
Russia’s penitentiary service said it was moving Mr Navalny to a prison hospital on Monday, 20 days into a hunger strike by the campaigner, who narrowly survived poisoning with what German authorities said was the nerve agent Novichok last year. The Russian government has dismissed appeals from foreign governments over the state of his health.
Mr Navalny’s supporters have called for mass protests across Russia on Wednesday to demand his release, but police warned they would take “all necessary measures to maintain law and order” and urged people not to demonstrate.
Ukraine and Czech Republic
During their video conference, the 27 EU ministers were joined by their Ukrainian counterpart, foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba, who was invited to address the group as an expression of solidarity with the eastern state.
They expressed “strong support for Ukraine sovereignty and territorial integrity”, Mr Borrell said, and reiterated their opposition to the 2014 annexation of Crimea, which has been followed by seven years of fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces that has killed more than 14,000 people.
The Czech Republic also asked for solidarity from the rest of the EU after it expelled 18 Russian diplomats due to information from its security services that Russia’s GRU military intelligence service was involved in the 2014 arms depot explosions near the village of Vrbetice. Local media have reported that the cache may have contained munitions destined for groups fighting Russian forces in Ukraine and Syria.
Czech foreign minister Jan Hamacek asked the capitals to consider making national statements or following up with their own “evictions of Russian intelligence officers from European soil”, he wrote on Twitter.
Russian officials have denied any involvement in the explosion, which the Czech government has likened to the 2018 poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom. Moscow responded to the diplomatic expulsions by ordering 20 Czech diplomats to leave by midnight on Monday.
Days before, Moscow had expelled 10 US diplomats in retaliation for US expulsions of Russians and toughened US sanctions by the administration of Joe Biden, over accusations of meddling in US elections and cyber attacks.