Russia expels two U.S. diplomats, claiming 'illegal activity'

The Russian Foreign Ministry has expelled two U.S. diplomats from the U.S. embassy in Moscow, accusing them of working with a Russian national to gather intelligence on the war in Ukraine. File Photo by Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA-EFE

Sept. 14 (UPI) -- The Russian government on Thursday expelled two U.S. diplomats, accusing them of conducting "illegal activity," against the Russian Federation with the help of a Russian citizen.

The U.S. embassy's First Secretary, Jeffrey Sillin, and Second Secretary, David Berstein, were declared "persona non grata," by the Russian government Thursday.

"The U.S. Ambassador was told that J. Sillin and D. Bernstein must leave the territory of Russia within 7 days in the status of 'persona non grata,'" the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a press release Thursday.

The Foreign Ministry accused the two U.S. diplomats of working with a Russian citizen to acquire information about the war in Ukraine.

In August, the Russian Federal Security Service announced that Robert Shonov, a Russian citizen who had been employed at the U.S. Consulate in Vladivostok for decades, had been charged with passing information to American diplomats at the U.S. embassy.

"Those persons conducted illegal activities, maintaining contact with the Russian citizen R. Shonov, accused of 'confidential cooperation' with a foreign state, who, for material remuneration, was given tasks aimed at harming the national security of the Russian Federation," the Russian Foreign Ministry said Thursday.

When the charges against Shonov were announced in August, U.S. officials vehemently denied the allegations.

"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," U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement in August.

The State Department described the charges against Shonov as intimidation.

"We strongly protest the Russian security services' attempts -- furthered by Russia's state-controlled media -- to intimidate and harass our employees. Russia is obligated under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to treat diplomats with due respect and take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on their person, freedom, or dignity, and we expect them to fulfill that obligation," Miller continued.

In February of 2022, less than a week after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. government expelled 12 diplomats from Russia's mission to the United Nations, accusing them of "espionage activities."

"The U.S. has informed the Russian Mission that we are beginning the process of expelling 12 intelligence operatives from the Russian Mission who have abused their privileges of residency in the U.S. by engaging in espionage activities that are adverse to our national security," U.S. Mission to the U.N. spokesperson Olivia Dalton said in a post on social media.