BRUSSELS -- Current and former U.S. officials said that they are concerned that the Russian government might retaliate against recent Ukraine-related sanction by detaining American citizens in Russia and making them pawns in this conflict.
National security officials are concerned that President Vladimir Putin's government could target Americans doing business with Russia, such as employees of U.S. businesses, if they do not comply with the new U.S. sanction.
This could make it difficult for Americans to choose between breaking U.S. law or running afoul the Russian government.
Two people familiar with the conversations stated that the Biden administration began notifying major Russian businesses that Putin could take hostages if the situation escalates.
Now that Russia and the European Union closed their airspace each other's planes it is much more difficult to fly out of Russia, there is greater urgency to think about relocating employees.
Evelyn Farkas (the top Pentagon official for Russia during Obama's administration) stated that "it's absolutely plausible concern".
It is unclear whether the Biden administration has any specific reason to believe Putin could take hostages from the United States or is simply anticipating worst-case scenarios. Officials said that discussions to reduce the Russian hostage risk have been held with multiple U.S. security agencies and Roger Carstens, U.S. Special Envoy For Hostage Affairs.
Washington's Russian Embassy did not respond to our request for comment.
Russia has been known to detain American citizens for years, sometimes on purported espionage accusations, and then detain them for prolonged periods of what the U.S. calls wrongful imprisonment.
This includes two ex-Marines from the United States currently detained in Russia. Trevor Reed was sentenced in 2020 on charges of assaulting a Police Officer and Paul Whelan was sentenced to 16 year on spying charges. Both Americans have been demanded by the U.S. for their unconditional and immediate release.
Ex-officials from the United States claim that America has had a long history of concerns about Russian businesses and its employees. This is especially true during times of high tension between Washington, DC and Moscow.
Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer and Europe commander, stated that "this is what will happen: They’ll be arrested on trumped up charges." There is always concern that Americans conducting business in Russia could be caught up in bilateral tensions and may end up being unjustly detained, sometimes for very long periods.
According to the State Department, concerns over Americans being held in Russia or prevented from leaving are just a few of the reasons why the U.S. is urging citizens to leave the country.
A State Department spokesperson stated that in the past, Russian security services had arrested U.S. citizens for spurious charges and denied them fair and transparent treatment. They also convicted them in secret trials or without presenting any evidence.
According to the spokesperson, dual citizens of the United States and Russia could be at risk. Russia may refuse to allow U.S. consular officers prompt access to American detained persons.
In a Monday travel warning, the State Department warned Americans that Russian security officials could harass them.
The warning stated that Russian security services were increasing their arbitrary enforcement law to target foreign and international organisations they consider "undesirable".
In an attempt to deter Russia's military actions and impose costs on Putin's invasion, the U.S. and Europe have enacted some of the most severe sanctions ever imposed against Russia. To prevent economic collapse, the sanctions have caused Russia's currency to plummet and interest rates soared. The central bank temporarily closed down the stock exchange to stop this.
The sanctions prohibit American citizens and businesses to do business with Russia's largest banks and financial institutions. It is almost impossible for them to continue doing business in Russia without violating U.S. laws. In an effort to limit Russia's access high-tech materials, the U.S. also implemented new export controls. This is another problem for U.S. businesses trying to avoid violating U.S. restrictions.
The Russian parliament, the Duma has been studying anti-sanctions legislation for many years. This would make it illegal for Russia to comply with U.S. and Western sanctions. The Duma voted in favor of a bill that could impose up to 4 years imprisonment for anyone refusing to do business in Russia after the U.S. placed sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 elections.
Despite strong opposition from Russia's business community, the legislation has yet to become law. They have warned that this would lead to the loss of foreign investment.
Adam Smith, an ex-senior Treasury Department official who is now a Gibson Dunn sanctions attorney, says that this could change soon.
Smith stated, "It's a possibility that could be law." "That is one of my retaliatory actions that people should be paying attention too, and many people I know do."
This law would be passed in the Duma. It serves as a rubber stamp for Putin's agenda. Russia could then use it to round up Americans who do business with sanctioned Russian entities.
China, an ally of Russia, passed an antisanctions law last year that allows the Chinese government to retaliate against foreigners or foreign companies who help other countries impose sanctions against China. The financial sector has been agitated by questions about whether or how the law would be applied to Hong Kong, a major financial hub. However, China's government has resisted applying the law to Hong Kong.
Many U.S.-based and Western businesses have already announced that they are withdrawing from Russia. This includes ending joint projects, selling off financial stakes in Russian companies, or stopping sales of products or services.
However, companies with large Russian presences, like ExxonMobil (based in Texas), would not be able to pull out of Russia completely. It is said that it has over 1,000 Russian employees. ExxonMobil did not respond to a request for comment.