Russia expels two US diplomats for 'illegal activity'

The U.S. Embassy building is seen in Moscow, Russia, June 22, 2022. [Reuters]

Russia's Foreign Ministry said Thursday it has expelled two U.S. Embassy employees from the country, accusing them of working with a Russian national that Moscow had previously accused of spying.

In a statement, the foreign ministry said it had summoned U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy and informed her that the two diplomats - Jeff Sillin and David Bernstein - conducted "illegal activities by liaising with a Russian citizen, Robert Shonov," and they must leave the territory of Russia within seven days.

Shonov had worked as a local employee at the U.S. consulate in the eastern city of Vladivostok for more than 25 years until Russia ordered the termination of the U.S. mission's local staff in 2021.

Russia's Federal Security Service - the FSB - arrested Shonov in May and accused him of cooperating "on a confidential basis with a foreign state," alleging he passed information to the United States about Russia's war in Ukraine.

Last month, the FSB announced it planned to interrogate Sillin and Bernstein after it accused them of directing Shonov to gather information.

At a news briefing in Washington Thursday, U.S. State Department spokesman Matt Miller reacted to Russia's move, saying, "This unprovoked expulsion of our diplomatic personnel is wholly without merit."

Referring to Shonov, Miller said he "was arrested for the supposedly nefarious task of performing such activities as providing our embassy with media clips. Yet again, Russia has chosen confrontation and escalation over constructive diplomatic engagement."