Russia detains French NGO worker in Moscow on spying charges

Russia has arrested a French NGO worker on suspicion of spying on its military, a move that is likely to further strain already frought relations with Paris.

The Russian authorities claimed, without providing evidence, that the Frenchman was involved in the “targeted collection of information in the field of military-technical activities of the Russian Federation”. They have launched a criminal case against him for allegedly violating the country’s law requiring any person receiving foreign support to register as a “foreign agent”.

“Such information, if obtained by foreign sources, may be used against the security of the state,” it added.

Moscow did not name the Frenchman, who was detained at a cafe, but the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue identified him as its employee Laurent Vinatier.

The NGO, which is based in Geneva and works to prevent and resolve armed conflicts through mediation and discreet diplomacy, said it was trying to secure Mr Vinatier’s release.

“We are aware that Laurent Vinatier, an adviser at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, has been detained in Russia,” the NGO said in a statement to AFP news agency.

”We are working to get more details of the circumstances and to secure Laurent’s release.”

Mr Vinatier faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

His LinkedIn profile describes Mr Vinatier as a “conversationalist” and shows that he has worked at the Geneva NGO for over a decade, focusing mostly on former Soviet republics, Turkey and the Middle East.

The French foreign ministry said it was aware of the arrest of a citizen and that its embassy in Moscow had requested consular protection for him.

“It is one of our citizens working for a Swiss NGO,” French president Emmanuel Macron told a TV station on Thursday evening. “It was in no way someone who was working for France.”

“We will follow this closely and he will receive all consular protection.”

Mr Vinatier’s arrest came at a low-point for relations between Russia and France, most notably after Mr Macron’s repeated statements that his country would not rule out deploying troops in Ukraine.

Moscow has warned that French troops, including non-combatant military trainers sent to support Ukrainian bases, would be legitimate targets for Russia if they were sent to Ukraine.

Activists have criticised the new Russian law requiring anyone receiving foreign support as a foreign agent.

The Kremlin’s critics have denounced the law and similar newly enacted legislation as an attempt by Moscow to crack down on independent media and political activism.

Russia has made several arrests of people it describes as alleged spies since the Ukraine in February 2022.

Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was arrested on espionage charges in March 2023, and Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian-American journalist, was held in late 2023 for failing to register as a “foreign agent”. Both have strongly denied any wrongdoing, and say they were engaged in normal journalistic activities.

Additional reporting by agencies