Russia denies US access to American-Russian former ballerina accused of treason

The California resident's U.S.-Russian dual citizenship complicates her case.

February 21, 2024, 8:03 PM

Moscow's arrest of a Los Angeles woman on charges of high treason has cast a new spotlight on the steep challenges imposed by Russia's refusal to recognize almost all dual citizenships -- sharply limiting diplomats' ability to oversee the cases and intervene if warranted.

Ksenia Karelina, a 33-year-old former ballerina who holds both U.S. and Russian citizenship, was arrested Jan. 27 in the city of Yekaterinburg in central Russia and then jailed in early February for allegedly organizing fundraisers for Ukraine's military, attending pro-Ukraine rallies, and posting messages against Russia's war in Ukraine, according to Russian state media.

But even though a longstanding agreement between the U.S. and Russia requires both countries to immediately notify the other if one of their nationals is detained, officials in Washington had virtually no information about her case when she was publicly identified by the FSB -- Russia's Federal Security Service -- earlier this week.

PHOTO: Russian authorities detained a Los Angeles woman, known in the US as Ksenia Khavana, on suspicion of treason for her efforts supporting Ukraine.
Russian authorities detained a Los Angeles woman, known in the US as Ksenia Khavana, on suspicion of treason for her efforts supporting Ukraine. This video grab shows the 33-year-old woman, who has dual Russian-American citizenship, being led away by officers with a hat pulled down over her eyes. Her employer, Ciel Spa in Beverly Hills, confirmed the detained woman is spa employee Ksenia Khavana.
Russian Federal Security Service/TASS via ZUMA Press via Newscom

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow were working to learn more and gain access to Karelina -- a provision stipulated by the same agreement that requires notification.

However, Miller set low expectations, saying that in recent history, Russia has not recognized any dual U.S.-Russian national's American citizenship.

"We have pressed it at a number of levels," he said on Wednesday. "We don't have a lot of regular engagements with the Russian government now, but our embassy continues to raise it on a regular basis."

While cutting off U.S. officials' access to the detainee obscures information about specific cases, it also inhibits diplomats' ability to assess the well-being of prisoners who often must endure weeks or months of harsh conditions behind bars between public court appearances.

PHOTO: Ksenia Khavana is shown in this undated photo.
Ksenia Khavana is shown in this undated photo.
Ciel Spa

Russian authorities have released a video purportedly of Karelina following her arrest -- a clip showing a woman with a white hat pulled over eyes being escorted through a hallway and handcuffed by a masked security guard, put in a car, and then placed in a cell.

Karelina's former employer and Russian media outlets have said that the treason charges levied against her stem from a $51.80 donation she made to a Ukrainian charity. If convicted, she could face a life sentence.

Miller said Karelina's arrest was a reminder for all American citizens about the dangers of traveling to Russia, especially given current tensions.

"Russia continues to detain its own citizens and continues to detain American citizens, and it's why we have tried to make clear just as plainly as we possibly can that no American citizens should consider traveling to Russia for any reason, period, because they are at risk of detention, imprisonment by the Russian regime," Miller said.

"If you are considering travel to Russia for any reason, do not do it. I don't think we can say it any more clearly than that," he continued.

Karelina is not the only U.S.-Russian dual national jailed by Moscow in recent months. Russian-American journalist Alsu Kurmasheva was arrested in October for failing to register as a foreign agent and later charged her with spreading false information about the Russian army, an offense that carries up to 15 years in jail.

American diplomats also have not been able to access Kurmasheva, and a court recently extended her pretrial detention through April.

Despite the State Department's blunt warnings against visiting Russia, its travel alert does not explicitly warn dual citizens about the treatment they will almost certainly face if they are detained.

In a clause regarding Moscow's 2022 decree on military conscription, the U.S. alert warns that Russia "may refuse to acknowledge dual nationals' U.S. citizenship."

However, the British government's warning includes a specific section for dual citizens, advising "dual British-Russian nationals are treated as Russian nationals by local authorities" and "if you are arrested or detained, Russian authorities are unlikely to allow us consular access."

Even in cases that don't involve dual nationals, Russia has been increasingly reluctant to allow diplomats to access jailed foreign nationals in recent years and regularly restricts access to Paul Whelan and Evan Gershkovich, two Americans the U.S. says are being wrongfully detained on espionage charges.

The Russian government has dual citizenship agreements with two countries -- Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

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