US accuses Russia of intimidation over former consulate worker’s spy charge

Robert Shonov, a Russian national and ex-staffer at Washington’s consulate in Vladivostok, was charged with ‘cooperation on a confidential basis’ with US embassy staff in Moscow.

In this handout photo taken from video released by Lefortovo District Court, Robert Shonov walks escorted by officers to the court room at the Lefortovo District Court in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, May 18, 2023. Robert Shonov, a Russian national who worked at the now-closed U.S. consulate in Vladivostok for more than 25 years, was detained in the far eastern city and is facing charges of "cooperation on a confidential basis with a foreign state, international or foreign organization." The charge carries punishment of up to eight years in prison. (Lefortovo District Court via AP)
Robert Shonov, centre, escorted by officers to the court room at the Lefortovo District Court in Moscow, Russia, in May 2023 [File: Lefortovo District Court, photo from video, via AP Photo]

The United States has accused Russia of attempting to intimidate and harass Washington’s employees after Russian state media reported that a former US consulate worker was charged with collecting information on the war in Ukraine on behalf of Washington.

Russia’s state-run TASS news agency quoted Russia’s FSB security service as saying that Robert Shonov, a Russian national, had supplied information to US embassy staff in Moscow on how Russia’s conscription for the war in Ukraine was affecting political discontent inside Russia ahead of the country’s 2024 presidential election.

The charge of “cooperation on a confidential basis with a foreign state” carries a maximum prison sentence of eight years in prison.

“Russia’s targeting of Mr Shonov under the ‘confidential cooperation’ statute only highlights the increasingly repressive actions the Russian government is taking against its own citizens,” US State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement on Monday.

Miller said that Shonov provided services to the US Embassy in Moscow “in strict compliance with Russia’s laws and regulations”.

“We strongly protest the Russian security services’ attempts – furthered by Russia’s state-controlled media – to intimidate and harass our employees,” Miller said in the statement, adding that Washington was aware the FSB had also summoned two diplomats working at the US embassy in Moscow in connection to the case.

Shonov, who has been under arrest since May, was employed by the US Consulate General in the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok for more than 25 years until Russia in 2021 ordered the termination of the US mission’s local staff.

“Shonov’s sole role at the time of his arrest was to compile press summaries from publicly-available Russian media sources,” the State Department said following his arrest in May.

“The fact that he is being prosecuted under the ‘confidential cooperation’ law highlights the Russian Federation’s blatant use of increasingly repressive laws against its own citizens,” it added.

The FSB said it also planned to question two US embassy employees – identified as Jeffrey Silin and David Bernstein who worked in the political department at the diplomatic mission in Moscow – who were in contact with Shonov.

Russian news agencies released undated footage on Monday distributed by the FSB showing Shonov’s detention on a snow-covered street. It also published images of Shonov testifying on camera.

The FSB said Shonov had begun handing information to the US diplomats last September about the war in Ukraine and the resulting mobilisation of Russians to fight in the war. It added that Shonov had been tasked with gauging protest sentiment ahead of presidential elections scheduled for next year in Russia.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies