American Citizens in Russia May Be Arrested, U.S. Officials Fear

The United States government is concerned that American citizens in Russia may be arrested in retaliation against the sanctions imposed after the Russian military invaded Ukraine.

U.S. officials told NBC News that the government is worried Russia may target Americans doing business in Russia if they comply with the sanctions. There is also concern Russia may hold the prisoners as pawns in the conflict.

The Russian military began its invasion of Ukraine six days ago. In response, President Joe Biden announced harsh sanctions that will have severe economic costs and long-term effects on the Russian economy. Officials now fear the Russian government may retaliate against the sanctions by taking it out on American citizens.

In Russia, current and former U.S. government and military personnel, as well as American citizens conducting business, have been interrogated without a legitimate reason and have been threatened by Russian officials.

"Russian security services have arrested U.S. citizens on spurious charges, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and have convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting credible evidence," the United States Embassy said in an alert Monday.

Some citizens have been victims of harassment, mistreatment and extortion. The embassy warned all government personnel to "carefully consider their need to travel to Russia," as their ability to help U.S. citizens is "severely limited."

The embassy also advised Americans to avoid all political or social protests. In Russia, the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly is generally frowned upon. As of Monday, more than 5,500 people had been detained at various anti-war protests since the invasion began on Thursday.

The government warned American citizens to evacuate Russia as soon as possible since commercial flights leaving country are becoming more scarce. Several nations restricted Russian flights from entering its airspace and Russia's aviation agency won't allow flights from 36 nations to enter into theirs, causing mass delays and cancellations with airlines.

"U.S. citizens should consider departing Russia immediately via commercial options still available," the embassy said, adding that a number of airports in southern Russia have closed.

The U.S. government is concerned about citizens' safety since there is a long history of Russia detaining Americans. It's often for espionage charges and people are sentenced to long periods, which the U.S. said is wrongful imprisonment, NBC News reported.

One detained citizen is Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was in Russia as a tourist when he was arrested at a hotel in Moscow in 2018. He was charged with espionage for allegedly spying and is serving a 16-year hard-labor sentence at a prison camp in Mordovia.

Russia is also holding Trevor Reed, another former Marine, who is serving a nine-year sentence for allegedly assaulting a Russian police officer after drinking in Moscow in 2019. Reed said he does not remember the incident and pleaded not guilty.

Whelan denied the charges against him and the U.S. state department previously called his charges "false." The department had previously requested for both men to be released, but given the war and sanctions against Russia, it's unclear if that will happen anytime in the near future.

Update 3/1/22, 12:55 p.m. ET: This article was updated with additional information.

Americans Potentially Arrested in Russia
The United States government is concerned that American citizens in Russia may be arrested in retaliation against the sanctions imposed after the Russian military invaded Ukraine. Above, Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 1, 2022. Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool/AP Photo