The Russian government is expelling two US diplomats for allegedly maintaining contact with a Russian national who worked for the US Mission and is accused by Moscow of being an “informant.”
According to the Russian Foreign Ministry and the US Embassy in Moscow, US Ambassador Lynne Tracy was summoned to the Ministry on Thursday and informed that the two diplomats – Jeffrey Sillin and David Bernstein – have been declared as “persona non grata,” which means they have to leave the country within a week.
US State Department spokesperson Matt Miller condemned the expulsion of the diplomats and said the US would “respond appropriately” to those actions.
“This unprovoked expulsion of our diplomatic personnel is wholly without merit, as is the case against a former Russian contractor of our embassy who was arrested for the supposedly nefarious task of performing such activities as providing our embassy with media clips,” Miller said Thursday.
Miller would not say how or when exactly the US would be responding beyond “expeditiously.”
“Yet again, Russia has chosen confrontation and escalation over constructive diplomatic engagement,” said Miller. “It continues to harass employees of our embassy, just as it continues to intimidate its own citizens.”
Miller said the expelled diplomats have not yet left Russia.
The expulsion of the two US diplomats comes as relations between Moscow and Washington are at their lowest point in decades.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Tracy was given “a harsh demarche with the presentation of an official note regarding the incompatibility with the diplomatic status of the actions of the First Secretary of the US Embassy Jeffrey Sillin and the Second Secretary of the Embassy David Bernstein.”
“These persons carried out illegal activities, maintaining contact with Russian citizen (Robert) Shonov, accused of ‘confidential cooperation’ with a foreign state, who was given tasks for financial compensation aimed at harming the national security of the Russian Federation,” the ministry said.
“It was also emphasized that illegal activities of the US diplomatic mission, including interference in the internal affairs of the host country, are unacceptable and will be resolutely suppressed. The Russian side expects Washington to draw the right conclusions and refrain from confrontational steps,” the ministry added.
Shonov, a Russian national who had worked for the US Consulate in Vladivostok for more than 25 years, was arrested and charged “confidential cooperation” with a foreign government, Russian state media outlet TASS reported in May.
State Department spokesperson Matt Miller denounced the charges as being “wholly without merit” and said 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 in May.
“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.
Last month, the Russian Security Service (FSB) published a video showing Shonov allegedly confessing that he was directed by US diplomats to look for Russians in “protest moods,” according to Russian state media. In the video, Shonov names Bernstein and Sillin, the two diplomats who were expelled Thursday. It was not clear if he was speaking under duress.
The State Department spokesperson said at that time they had seen the video “depicting the alleged confession” of Shonov “as well as images of apparent Federal Security Service (FSB) summons for two diplomats working at U.S. Embassy Moscow in connection to the case” and reiterated that the “allegations against Mr. Shonov are wholly without merit.”