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The United States has told its citizens to leave Russia immediately due to the war in Ukraine and the risk of arbitrary arrest or harassment by Russian law enforcement agencies. "U.S. citizens residing or traveling in Russia should depart immediately," the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said on February 12. "Exercise increased caution due to the risk of wrongful detentions." "Do not travel to Russia," the embassy said. The United States has repeatedly warned its citizens to leave Russia. The last such public warning was in September after President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization.

https://www.rferl.org/a/us-tells-citizens-leave-russia/32268642.html

Is there any instance of Russian law enforcement agencies harassing or arbitrarily arresting American citizens? I was wondering if it ever happened and if Russia really has a reason to do so, there must be some kind of historical precedent that explains why this statement was made, but I am not sure what Russia would gain from doing this. To me, it's equivalent to shooting oneself on the foot.

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Several examples. Of course there aren't so many recent examples, since most Americans have left Russia, but from 2019:

There were two Mormon missionaries arrested and deported. The official reason given was visa violations for working as English teachers, although they were first accused of breaking "freedom of religion" clauses in the constitution.

This seems to be a clear case of "we don't want American Mormons, so we'll find some excuse to deport them". https://abcnews.go.com/International/american-mormons-arrested-russia-face-deportation/story?id=61529461

There's Paul Whelan, convicted of spying. He denies charges.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-46757119. Evan Gerhskovich is another American, who's been accused of spying.

And, of course, there's Brittney Griner, the pro basketball player, who was detained for possession of "vape cartridges containing an oil derived from cannibis". https://www.espn.co.uk/wnba/story/_/id/34877115/brittney-griner-russia-drug-case-line-prison-trial-more

Nobody knows for sure if these are normal arrests, or if the Americans are being treated differently and arbitrarily. Now there may be other cases. Many cases are not going to public, as the US consulate will endeavour to gain people's freedom to return to the USA as quickly and quietly as possible. But certainly it seems that if you are doing something, like missionary activity, it may well cause local police to find some excuse to lock you up. And if you are a Journalist and asking awkward questions, you may find yourself investigated as a spy.

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  • If minority missionaries teaching their religion are breaking your 'freedom of religion' clause, the clause might be misnamed... Aug 14, 2023 at 16:44
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    Well they were actually deported for visa violations (working as English teachers on a visa that did not permit the to do work) - it looks pretty "trumped up" to me.
    – James K
    Aug 14, 2023 at 20:07
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Wall Street Jurnalist Evan Gerhskovich, who has been detained in Russia on March 29, under the accuasation of espionage, is considered by the US government (and broad US public) as a "political hostage".

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    According to his Wiki, Gerhskovich was reporting on the Ukraine War in general, and Wagner in particular. He was arrested for having information on Russian defence (in the obvious context of wartime there), and the article notes that this is the first arrest of a journalist for spying since the collapse of the USSR. Is it reasonable to adduce this as a case of "arbitrary arrest of an American citizen"? I realise there is bound to be dispute as to whether he was in fact spying, but it seems extremely plausible to think he was targeted as being a spy, not arbitrarily as an American citizen.
    – Steve
    Aug 12, 2023 at 6:11
  • @Steve Spy movies create false narrative of what it means to be a spy. The main trait of being a spy is to be as low-profile and mediocre as possible. And journalists are terrible at being spies. Everyone knows who they are, everyone knows where you are at any point and you need to get tons of accreditation and approval to go anywhere. So, the only thing extremely plausible here is that a country just needs some hostages to potentially exchange for someone. And russia has historical trait of doing this Aug 14, 2023 at 5:06
  • @SalvadorDali, the question would be whether spies are competent at appearing to be journalists, not whether journalists are good spies. My point is simply whether it is plausible to think he was targeted arbitrarily because he is an American citizen, as opposed to being targeted because he works openly for the propaganda forces of an enemy state (i.e. the press). The charges may be confected, but the targeting does not look remotely arbitrary or determined primarily by his citizenship (rather than by his occupation and subject matter, and current employer).
    – Steve
    Aug 14, 2023 at 9:42

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