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U.S. officials fear Putin's government may arrest Americans in Russia

National security officials have discussed concerns that Americans doing business in Russia — such as employees of U.S. companies — will be targeted if they comply with sanctions. 

BRUSSELS — The U.S. government is concerned that the Russian government may retaliate for recent Ukraine-related sanctions by arresting American citizens in Russia and holding them as pawns in the conflict, current and former U.S. officials told NBC News.

Among the concerns national security officials are discussing is that President Vladimir Putin’s government may target Americans doing business in Russia — such as employees of U.S. companies — if they comply with the new U.S. sanctions

That could force Americans in the country to make an undesirable choice between violating U.S. law and running afoul of the Russian government.

The Biden administration has started notifying some major businesses with operations in Russia that, depending how far the situation escalates, Putin could start taking Americans hostage, two people with knowledge of those conversations said.

The urgency to consider pulling employees out has increased now that Russia and the European Union have closed their airspace to each other's planes, making it far harder to get a flight out of Russia.

“It’s absolutely a plausible concern,” said Evelyn Farkas, the top Pentagon official for Russia during the Obama administration.

It’s unclear whether the Biden administration has specific reason to believe Putin may take U.S. hostages or is merely anticipating potential worst-case scenarios. But discussions about mitigating the risk for Americans in Russia have involved multiple U.S. national security agencies as well as U.S. Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, officials said.

The Russian Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to a request for comment.

There’s a long history of Russia detaining American citizens, often under purported espionage charges, and detaining them for long periods of what the U.S. has described as wrongful imprisonment. 

That includes two former U.S. Marines currently held in Russia: Trevor Reed, sentenced in 2020 to nine years in prison on charges of assaulting a police officer, and Paul Whelan, sentenced to 16 years on spying charges. The U.S. has called for the immediate and unconditional release of both Americans.

Former U.S. officials say the United States for decades has harbored particular concerns about American businesses in Russia and their employees, especially at times of high tension between Washington and Moscow.

“This is what will happen: They’ll get arrested on trumped-up charges,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer who oversaw Russia and Europe operations. “There’s always a concern that Americans doing business in Russia are caught up in the bilateral tensions and can be unjustly imprisoned — sometimes for long periods of time.”

The State Department said concerns about Americans being detained or prevented from leaving Russia are among the reasons the U.S. is currently urging its citizens to consider leaving the country immediately.

In the past, a State Department spokesman said, “Russian security services have arrested U.S. citizens on spurious charges, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and have convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting evidence.”

The spokesman said that dual U.S.-Russian citizens could also be at risk, and that Russia might refuse to give U.S. consular officials prompt access to detained Americans.

And in a travel warning issued Monday, the State Department cited “the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials” in urging Americans to get out “via commercial options still available.” 

“Russian security services are increasing the arbitrary enforcement of local laws to target foreign and international organizations they consider 'undesirable,'” the warning said.

The U.S. and Europe has enacted the most far-reaching sanctions on Russia ever, in a bid to impose costs for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and deter further military action. The measures have caused the value of Russia’s currency to crater and interest rates to surge, with the central bank temporarily shutting down the stock market to prevent an economic collapse.

Among other things, the sanctions bar American citizens and businesses from doing any business with Russia’s biggest banks and financial institutions, making it near impossible to keep doing business there without risking violating U.S. law. The U.S. has also slapped new export controls in a bid to restrict Russia’s access to high-tech materials, another evolving complication for U.S. companies seeking to avoid breaching U.S. restrictions.

In the Duma, Russia’s parliament, lawmakers have for years considered anti-sanctions legislation that would make it illegal in Russia to comply with U.S. or Western sanctions. After the U.S. hit Russia with sanctions for interfering in the 2016 election, the Duma held a successful vote on a bill that would impose up to four years in prison for anyone who refuses to do business with a Russian citizen because of sanctions.

That legislation has not yet become law, amid staunch objection from the business community in Russia that has warned that such a step would cause foreign investment in the country to evaporate. 

But that could change quickly, according to Adam Smith, a former senior Treasury Department official and a sanctions attorney at Gibson Dunn.

“It is a possibility that could become law,” Smith said. “That is one of the retaliatory measures that I think people are paying attention to, should be paying attention to, and many people I know are.”

Passing such a law in the Duma, which functions as a rubber-stamp for Putin’s agenda, would then give Russia a legal pretext for rounding up Americans who stop doing business with sanctioned Russian entities.

Last year China, a close Russian ally, passed an anti-sanctions law enabling the Chinese government to retaliate against foreigners and foreign companies that help other countries impose sanctions on China. Questions over whether and how that law would be applied in Hong Kong, a major global financial hub, have rattled the financial sector, although China’s government has held off on applying the law in Hong Kong for now.

Already, many U.S. and Western businesses have announced they’re pulling back from Russia, by winding down joint projects, exiting financial stakes in Russian companies or halting sales of their products or services in the country.

On Tuesday, oil giant ExxonMobil — which says it employs more than 1,000 people in the country — became the latest company to denounce Russia's actions in Ukraine and end operations there.

In a statement, the company said it was beginning the "process to discontinue operations" at a pipeline it has described as one of the single largest international direct investments in Russia.