By Stefan J. Bos
A large crowd braved the winter weather to walk towards the Moscow prison where opposition leader Alexei Navalny is being held.
This week a court sentenced Navalny to a prison camp for two years and eight months for alleged embezzlement, imprisoning President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critic despite a public outcry. He has called the charges and detention politically motivated.
Protesters here agree and demand his immediate release. Some shouted: "We are unarmed!". But the police were not impressed. "Citizens, this is an unauthorized event," they exclaimed. "Clear the road."
Many protesters carried a toilet brush. It has become the rallies' symbol after Navalny alleged that a palace owned by President Vladimir Putin contains an $800 toilet brush.
Thousands have been detained in these and other protests in recent weeks. People not only express anger about Navalny's detention. They are also furious about the reported massive corruption within Russia's leadership and President Putin's perceived failed policies.
And they have received support from Western diplomats.
Russia confirms expulsions
The Russian foreign ministry said three German, Swedish, and Polish diplomats were expelled from Russia for participating in what it calls "illegal "illegal demonstrations" last month.
Germany denounced the expulsion as being "in no way justified" and said it would not "go unanswered" if Russia did not reconsider.
Sweden said the claim that its diplomat took part in the protest on 23 January was unfounded and said it reserved the right to an appropriate response. And Poland said the expulsion could lead to the "further deepening of the crisis in bilateral relations."
European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said on behalf of the EU that he "strongly condemned" the expulsions and rejected allegations that they conducted activities incompatible with their status as foreign diplomats."
The expulsions also came after he met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow.
EU detention concerns
At the meeting, Borrel denounced the detention of Russian opposition leader Navalny, who narrowly survived a poisoning attack with a nerve agent. "I have conveyed to Minister Lavrov our deep concern and reiterated our appeal to his release and the launch of an impartial investigation into his poisoning," he said.
However, Lavrov expressed concern about the Russian-EU relationship. "It is true that they [the Russian-EU relations] are not at their best. That is partly due to the illegitimate restrictions introduced by the EU under a trumped-up pretext," Lavrov complained.
Russian Minister Lavrov referred to the EU's trade and financial sanctions imposed after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in 2014.
Lavrov also warned that any European sanctions over Navalny's treatment would be "illegitimate."