June 4, 2023

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The US State Department said on Tuesday it “strongly condemns” the reported arrest of Robert Shonov, a former US mission officer in Russia.

Russia’s state news agency TASS reported on Monday that Shonov had been detained in the eastern city of Vladivostok but was being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison, which is usually reserved for serious crimes, including espionage.

Shonov, a Russian citizen, was employed by the U.S. consulate general in Vladivostok for more than 25 years until Russia ordered the termination of local staff at the U.S. mission in 2021, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Tuesday in a statement.

At the time of his arrest, Shonov was employed by a company contracted to provide services to the US embassy in Moscow and his role was to compile summaries of Russian media reports, Miller said, adding that this arrangement is in accordance was with Russian laws and regulations.

“Its targeting under the status of ‘confidential cooperation’ highlights the Russian Federation’s blatant use of increasingly repressive laws against its own citizens,” Miller said.

The Russian embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

TASS quoted a law enforcement source on Monday as saying that “After questioning, Shonov was charged with committing an offense under Article 275.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Cooperation on a confidential basis with a foreign state, international or foreign organisation’).’)”, punishable by up to eight years in prison.

The US consulate in Vladivostok has been closed since December 2020 due to strained relations between Washington and Moscow, which deteriorated further after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

In late March, the FSB arrested Evan Gershkovich, an American journalist for the Wall Street Journal, on charges of espionage, an action the White House called ridiculous and illegal.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis, Katharine Jackson and Jasper Ward; editing by Daniel Wallis)