BRUXELLES — The US government is concerned that Russia will retaliate against recent Ukraine-related sanctions by arresting and holding American citizens in Russia as pawns in the conflict, according to current and former US officials.
Among the concerns raised by national security officials is that President Vladimir Putin’s government may target Americans doing business in Russia — such as employees of American companies — if they adhere to the new US sanctions.
This could force Americans in the country to choose between violating US law and provoking the Russian government’s wrath.
The Biden administration has begun notifying major businesses with operations in Russia that, depending on how far the situation deteriorates, Putin may begin holding Americans hostage, according to two people familiar with the conversations.
The urgency of considering employee withdrawal has increased now that Russia and the European Union have closed their airspace to each other, significantly complicating the process of departing Russia.
“It is a completely plausible concern,” said Evelyn Farkas, the Obama administration’s top Pentagon official for Russia.
It is unclear whether the Biden administration has reason to believe Putin will kidnap Americans or is simply anticipating worst-case scenarios. However, officials said that discussions about mitigating the risk to Americans in Russia have included representatives from multiple US national security agencies as well as US Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens.
A request for comment from the Russian Embassy in Washington went unanswered.
Russia has a long history of detaining American citizens, frequently on pretexts of espionage, and holding them for extended periods of what the US has described as wrongful imprisonment.
This includes two former United States Marines who are currently detained in Russia: Trevor Reed, who was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2020 for assaulting a police officer, and Paul Whelan, who was sentenced to 16 years for spying. The US has demanded both Americans’ immediate and unconditional release.
According to former US officials, the US has long been concerned about American businesses in Russia and their employees, particularly during times of high tension between Washington and Moscow.
“What will happen is that they will be arrested on fabricated charges,” predicted Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer who oversaw operations in Russia and Europe. “There is always a risk that Americans doing business in Russia become entangled in bilateral tensions and are imprisoned unjustly — sometimes for extended periods of time.”
According to the State Department, fears of Americans being detained or prevented from leaving Russia are among the reasons the US is currently advising citizens to consider leaving the country immediately.
Previously, a State Department spokesman stated, “Russian security services arrested American citizens on fabricated charges, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting evidence.”
According to the spokesman, dual citizens of the United States and Russia may also be at risk, and Russia may refuse to grant US consular officials prompt access to detained Americans.