A Russian national flag is seen near the US embassy main building in Moscow, Russia, on Monday, when the Federal Security Service said Robert Shonov, a former employee of the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, has been charged with passing information about the Ukraine invasion to the Americans. File Photo by Maxim Shipenkov/EPA-EFE
Aug. 28 (UPI) -- Russian authorities on Monday charged a former employee of the U.S. Consulate in Vladivostok with collecting information about the war in Ukraine for the American government.
The Federal Security Service announced in a statement that Robert Shonov was charged with "cooperation on a confidential basis with a foreign state" -- allegations that the United States vehemently denies.
Shonov, a Russian citizen, was detained mid-May, and the FSB said Monday that he is accused of collecting information on the Ukraine war, the mobilization of Russian citizens in the war effort and Russia's upcoming presidential election and passing it on to two employees of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from September until his arrest.
Russian state-run TASS news agency reported Monday that Shonov has pleaded guilty to the charges.
U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller refuted the charges as "wholly without merit."
"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," he said in a statement.
State Department officials previously stated that Shonov had worked at the U.S. Consulate in Vladivostok for more than 25 years but began working for a company contracted to provide services to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow after Russia forced the termination of locally employed staff in April 2021 following the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 of that same year.
"We strongly protest the Russian security services' attempts -- furthered by Russia's state-controlled media -- to intimidate and harass our employees," Miller said Monday.
"Russia is obligated under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to treat diplomats with due respect and to take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on their person, freedom, or dignity and we expect them to fulfill that obligation."
The FSB, which says it had "suppressed the activities" of an informant of the U.S. embassy, said in its statement Monday that it plans to interrogate the two U.S. embassy employees accused of directing Shonov to collect the information for them.
The development comes as U.S. citizen Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, awaits trial in Russia on espionage charges. He has been behind Russian bars since late March. In April, the United States declared that Gershkovich was "wrongly detained," which moves his case to the Office of the Special President Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, also remains in a Russian penal colony where he is serving a 16-year-prison sentence on espionage charges. The United States has also declared him "wrongly detained."