Moscow (AFP) -
The European Union's top diplomat said Friday that the bloc's ties with Russia had reached a new low following the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, but still raised hopes for cooperation.
In Moscow for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell repeated European calls for Navalny's release and an investigation into his poisoning last year.
'Our relationship is indeed in a difficult moment,' Borrell told Lavrov, adding that EU-Russia ties are 'under severe strain and the Navalny case is a low point.'
The West has fiercely condemned a Russian court's decision this week to jail the 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner for nearly three years, and a crackdown on pro-Navalny protesters that has seen more than 10,000 people arrested in recent weeks.
But Borrell said there were no immediate plans for new European sanctions and both he and Lavrov stressed that the two sides would continue to work together on issues including the coronavirus pandemic.
Borrell's visit was the first to Russia by a senior EU envoy since 2017, following years of deteriorating relations sparked by Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
- Navalny back in court -
Despite mounting tensions centred around Navalny, Lavrov and Borrell said they wanted Russia and the EU to find areas of common ground.
Citing culture, technology and the climate, Borrell told reporters during a press conference after the talks that 'there are issues in which we can and must work together.'
In particular, he hailed Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine and said he hoped it could be approved for use in the EU.
The vaccine, he said, was 'good news for the whole of mankind because it means we will have more tools to fight the pandemic.'
Lavrov said 'both sides have confirmed their interest in maintaining and expanding channels of dialogue, including on issues on which our positions differ.'
Tensions between Russia and the West have spiked in recent months, after three European labs concluded that Navalny was poisoned with a Soviet-designed nerve agent in an attack in Siberia in August.
He blames President Vladimir Putin for the poisoning, a charge the Kremlin denies.
Navalny was flown to Germany to recover from the poisoning then arrested at a Moscow airport when he returned to Russia in mid-January.
He was accused of violating parole conditions of a 2014 suspended sentence on fraud charges and on Tuesday jailed for two years and eight months.
He was back in court on Friday on separate charges of defaming a World War II veteran, which could see him jailed for an additional two years.
The trained lawyer is accused of describing people who appeared in a pro-Kremlin video -- including the 95-year-old veteran -- as 'the shame of the country' and 'traitors' in a June tweet.
In court Navalny and his lawyers said the case was politically motivated and a pretext to silence him.
- 'Truth is on my side' -
'It is clear to everyone that the truth is on my side,' he said, standing in glass cage for defendants in the Moscow courtroom.
Borrell's visit has drawn criticism from some European capitals worried Moscow will spin it as evidence Brussels is keen to return to business as usual, with some in Europe calling for new sanctions on Russia.
The Kremlin has accused the West of interfering in its affairs and on Friday also lashed out against what it called 'aggressive and unconstructive rhetoric' from the United States.
'We've already said that we will not heed patronising statements of this sort,' said Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
President Joe Biden on Thursday said the United States will no longer be 'rolling over in the face of Russia's aggressive actions' and his officials said they would take action against Moscow over Navalny and for other 'malign' behaviour.
In a separate probe, Navalny faces a 10-year sentence for allegedly using $4.8 million worth of donations for personal purposes including holidays abroad.
On Thursday, he called on his supporters to fight fear and liberate Russia from 'thieves' in power, while his aides promised to stage large demonstrations later this year ahead of parliamentary elections due in September.