Russia Expels 2 US Embassy Staffers for ‘Illegal Activity’

Wim De Gent
By Wim De Gent
September 16, 2023World News
Russia Expels 2 US Embassy Staffers for ‘Illegal Activity’
A view shows the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia, on Feb. 13, 2023. (Evgenia Novozhenina/File photo/Reuters)

Russia said on Thursday it was expelling two U.S. diplomats whom it accused of working with a Russian national charged with collaborating with a foreign state—the latest blow to U.S.-Russian relations.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement it had summoned U.S. envoy Lynne Tracy and told her that two members of her staff, First Secretary Jeffrey Sillin and Second Secretary David Bernstein, had been declared persona non grata.

“These embassy employees conducted illegal activities by liaising with Russian citizen Robert Shonov, who has been accused of ‘confidential collaboration’ with a foreign state,” the Russian statement said.

The two accused were given seven days to leave the Russian territory.

“It was pointed out that the illegal activities of the U.S. Embassy, namely, interference in the internal affairs of the host country, were unacceptable and would be firmly prevented,” the statement continued.

“Russia hopes that Washington will draw correct conclusions from this and will refrain from taking confrontational steps,” it said.

The U.S. State Department said the expulsion of the two diplomats was baseless and warned that Washington would respond appropriately.

“This unprovoked expulsion of our diplomatic personnel is wholly without merit,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a press conference, “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.”

“Yet again, Russia has chosen confrontation and escalation over constructive diplomatic engagement. It continues to harass employees of our embassy, just as it continues to intimidate its own citizens,” Mr. Miller added.

“We regret that Russia has taken this path and you can certainly expect that we will respond appropriately to their actions.”

Mr. Shonov, the alleged accomplice of the two expelled staffers, is a former employee of the U.S. Consulate General in the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok, where he worked for more than 25 years, until Moscow ordered the dismissal of the U.S. mission’s local staff in 2021. According to the U.S. State Department, Mr. Shonov resumed his work as a private contractor.

Russia’s federal security service FSB published a video in August in which Mr. Shonov ostensibly confessed Mr. Sillin and Mr. Bernstein had asked him to collect information about Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, its annexation of “new territories,” its military mobilization and the 2024 presidential election.

In the video, Mr. Shonov explained he was told to gather “negative” information on these topics and to look for signs of popular protest within Russia against its government, and to reflect these in his reporting.

When Mr. Shonov was arrested in May, the State Department said the case highlighted Russia’s “blatant use of increasingly repressive laws” against its own citizens, claiming that Mr. Shonov had only worked “in strict compliance with Russia’s laws and regulations.”

Russia and the United States have now both expelled numerous diplomats since the beginning of the war in Ukraine last year.

After Russia expelled Deputy Chief of Mission Bart Gorman from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in February last year, the United States responded in kind, expelling Russia’s second-ranking diplomat in its Washington embassy.

Following a series of arrests of U.S. nationals, including WNBA star Brittney Griner (who has since been able to return to the United States), and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich (who remains jailed in Russia over espionage charges), 12 Russian diplomats were told to leave the United States over “national security concerns.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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