Russia arrests French researcher suspected of collecting intelligence

Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) confirms 47-year-old Laurent Vinatier was detained in Moscow and says it is working to secure his relaase.

Barbed wire with the Kremlin and St Basil's Cathedral in the background
Vinatier was arrested in central Moscow [File: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA]

Russia has arrested a French citizen working for a Geneva-based conflict mediation organisation, accusing him of gathering information about the military and failing to register as a “foreign agent”.

Russia’s state Investigative Committee said the man was suspected over a period of several years of having “purposefully collected information in the field of military and military-technical activities of the Russian Federation”, which could be used against the security of the state.

The committee, which investigates major crimes, released a short video showing a man in jeans and a black T-shirt being approached by masked officers on the terrace of a central Moscow restaurant before being led into a police van.

While it did not identify the man and blurred his face in the video, the state-run TASS news agency identified him as Laurent Vinatier.

His lawyer Alexei Sinitsin told AFP news agency Vinatier has been charged with breaching Russia’s “foreign agents” law, but in a statement investigators accused him of gathering military information that could be used against Russia by foreign states.

“The Investigative Committee is now filing an application with the court office” requesting Vinatier be held in jail pending trial, Sinitsin said.

The nonprofit Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) said it was aware that Vinatier, 47, who worked for the group as an adviser on Russia and Eurasia, had been arrested and was trying to secure his release.

“We are working to get more details of the circumstances and to secure Laurent’s release,” the group said in a statement.

French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, denied Vinatier worked for the French state and said his arrest was part of a campaign of disinformation by Moscow.

Under Russian laws used to crack down on Kremlin critics, anybody who receives foreign support or who is under “foreign influence” must register as a “foreign agent“.  HD was founded by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and works to address and mediate armed conflicts around the world.

Arrests on charges of spying and collecting sensitive data have become increasingly frequent in Russia since it began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Evan Gershkovich, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal, was arrested last year on suspicion of trying to obtain military secrets and charged with espionage, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years, and is currently in custody awaiting trial. The United States has designated him “wrongfully detained” and is seeking his release.

Russian-American journalist Alsu Kurmasheva was arrested last October and is awaiting trial on charges including failing to register as a “foreign agent”. She too is being held in custody pending trial.

According to Vinatier’s LinkedIn page, he has been an adviser to the Eurasia/Russia Programme at HD since March 2014.

He completed his PhD on the Chechen diaspora and has lectured on international relations and political economy at various universities in France and Europe, as well as writing several books and book chapters on Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

“He is a phenomenal academic who conducted research in risky conditions for over 15 years, including in Chechnya and Belarus”, said Jean-Francois Ratelle, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa who said he frequently crossed paths professionally with Vinatier, told Reuters news agency.

“The FSB [Russia’s Federal Security Service] kept close tabs on him”, Ratelle told Reuters, saying he too had been subjected to “dozens” of FSB interrogations over the years on research trips to Russia.

Vinatier’s arrest “underlines how dangerous conducting academic research in Russia has become”, he said.

The arrest was announced just as France hosted many Western leaders for events to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day on Thursday. Russia was not invited as a result of its invasion of Ukraine.

It also comes amid strains in relations between Moscow and Paris after Macron talked about the conditions under which France might be prepared to deploy soldiers in Ukraine, and Kyiv said France had agreed to send military instructors to the country.

Moscow has warned that French soldiers would be legitimate targets for Russia if they were sent to Ukraine.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies