The Biden administration urged U.S. citizens on Monday to leave Russia without delay, warning of “unpredictable consequences” including detentions as a result of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The State Department issued a travel advisory, set at the highest of four levels, ahead of President Joe Biden’s expected visit to Poland to mark the anniversary of the massive assault’s beginning.
“U.S. citizens residing or travelling in Russia should depart immediately,” the advisory says. “Exercise increased caution due to the risk of wrongful detentions.”
The advisory cites “the potential for harassment and the singling out of U.S. citizens for detention by Russian government security officials, the arbitrary enforcement of local law, limited flights into and out of Russia, the Embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia, and the possibility of terrorism.”
One high-profile case of what U.S. officials deemed a “wrongful detention” began to unfold days before the invasion began. WNBA star Brittney Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport after being caught with marijuana vaping materials. Griner received a nine-year prison sentence for drug possession and was sent to a penal colony. In December, Russia released Griner in a prisoner exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, widely known as the “Merchant of Death.”
Others remain stuck in Russia, including U.S. Marine veteran Paul Whelan, who was imprisoned on espionage charges that the U.S. government and his family have said were baseless, according to the Associated Press. Russia’s Federal Security Service announced in January the opening of a criminal case against a U.S. citizen suspected of espionage. The details of that case, including the identity of the U.S. citizen, remain shrouded in mystery.
The United States has provided tens of billions of dollars in aid to support Ukraine’s defense efforts and led an international coalition to levy sanctions meant to punish Russia for the invasion that began on February 24, 2022, and continues to this day.
Russia’s government appeared to shrug off the State Department’s latest advisory. “This is not a new thing,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, according to Reuters.
The State Department previously issued an advisory in September, as the Russian government began a mobilization of its citizens to the armed forces in support of its invasion of Ukraine, warning Russia “may refuse to acknowledge dual nationals’ U.S. citizenship, deny their access to U.S. consular assistance, prevent their departure from Russia, and conscript dual nationals for military service.”