US condemns arrest of former US consulate employee in Russia

The U.S. State Department on Tuesday condemned the arrest of a former employee of a U.S. consulate in Russia, the latest example of the country's crackdown against its own citizens and foreigners.

Russia's Tass news agency said Robert Shonov was detained in the Russian city of Vladivostok on suspicion of "cooperation on a confidential basis with a foreign state, international or foreign organization.” Tass didn't say when the detention occurred or provide any details of the allegation.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Shonov is a Russian national worked at the now-closed U.S. consulate in Vladivostok for more than 25 years. He said that after a Russian government order in April 2021 required dismissing all local employees from U.S. diplomatic outposts in Russia, Shonov worked at a company the U.S. contracted with to support its embassy in Moscow.

“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.”

Miller added, “The United States strongly condemns the reported arrest of Robert Shonov” and said the allegations against him “are wholly without merit.”

Tass said a Moscow court on Thursday would consider extending Shonov's arrest for three months. The news agency said he was being held in Moscow's Lefortovo prison on charges that carry a potential sentence of up to eight years in prison.

Also held in Lefortovo is Evan Gershkovich, an American reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Gershkovich has been in custody since his March 29 arrest by Russia’s security service on espionage charges that he, his employer and the U.S. government have denied.

Gershkovich's arrest rattled journalists in Russia and drew outrage in the West. The United States has declared Gershkovich to be “wrongfully detained” and demanded his immediate release.

Since invading Ukraine in February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin has widened the scope of a years-old crackdown on criticism of government policies, other forms of dissent and actions that his government finds objectionable. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Russians have been fined, jailed or fled the country because of the crackdown.