The US State Department on Tuesday strongly condemned the “reported arrest” of a Russian former employee of the US Mission in Russia.
The charges against Robert Shonov – “confidential cooperation” with a foreign government, according to Russian state media outlet TASS – “are wholly without merit,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement.
The arrest of Shonov, a Russian national who had worked for the US Consulate in Vladivostok for more than 25 years, comes as relations between Washington and Moscow have plummeted amid the war in Ukraine and Russia’s wrongful detention of US citizens.
In a statement, Miller said that Shonov was working for “a company contracted to provide services to U.S. Embassy in Moscow in strict compliance with Russia’s laws and regulations” after the Russian government barred the US from employing Russian staff in 2021.
“Mr. Shonov’s only role at the time of his arrest was to compile media summaries of press items from publicly available Russian media sources,” Miller said.
“His being targeted under the ‘confidential cooperation’ statute highlights the Russian Federation’s blatant use of increasingly repressive laws against its own citizens,” he said.
State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel did not say if there was anything the US could or would do to compel Shonov’s release but said it was “something we’re going to continue to be engaged on.”
“These accusations that the Russian Federation is throwing against Mr. Shonov as well as their use of the confidential cooperation statute, this is something we’re going to continue to be engaged on,” he said at a State Department briefing Tuesday.
Patel noted that the Russian government had not informed the US of his arrest given that he is not a US citizen or permanent resident, and said the US does not “have any ability to visit or communicate with him.”
According to TASS, Shonov was arrested in Vladivostok, a city in far eastern Russia. He is being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison – the same facility where wrongfully detained American journalist Evan Gershkovich is being held – and a court date has not been set, TASS said.
Gershkovich was arrested in late March and charged with espionage. His appeal to serve out his pre-trial detention under house arrest rather than at Lefortovo Prison was denied in mid-April, and he will be held in the infamous prison until at least May 29. He faces a prison sentence for up to 20 years on espionage charges that the US has strongly condemned.
Russia has also imprisoned another American, Paul Whelan, on espionage charges for more than four years. Whelan, who has also been designated as wrongfully detained, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020.
Another American, Marc Fogel, who worked as a teacher at the Anglo-American school in Moscow, was sentenced to 14 years at a hard labor camp in Russia. His family fears that sentence amounts to a “a death sentence.”
CNN’s Kylie Atwood and Uliana Pavlova contributed to this report.