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Russia charges detained Frenchman, ex-colleague says he's victim of geopolitics

2 min

Russian investigators said on Friday they had formally charged a French researcher arrested the day before in Moscow with gathering information on Russia's military activities.

French national Laurent Vinatier sits inside an enclosure for defendants before a court hearing in Moscow, June 7, 2024. Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

Russian investigators said on Friday they had formally charged a French researcher arrested the day before in Moscow with gathering information on Russia's military activities.

The Swiss-based nonprofit Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) confirmed on Thursday that Laurent Vinatier, 47, who worked for the group as an adviser on Russia and Eurasia, had been detained and said it was working to secure his release.

Russia's Investigative Committee, which handles serious crimes, said Vinatier was suspected over a period of several years to have "purposefully collected information in the field of military and military-technical activities of the Russian Federation" which could be used against the security of the state.

Collecting such information while failing to register oneself with the Russian government as a "foreign agent" carries a punishment of up to five years in prison.

The Investigative Committee said it intended to apply to a court to place Vinatier in custody.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday denied Vinatier worked for the French state and described his arrest as part of a campaign of disinformation by Moscow.

Against the background of the war in Ukraine, several other Westerners detained in Russia, including U.S. reporter Evan Gershkovich, Russian-American reporter Alsu Kurmasheva and American Paul Whelan, have found themselves similarly caught up in the worst crisis for more than 60 years in relations between Russia and the West.

Russia has been especially critical of France's Macron for floating the possibility that Western troops could be sent to Ukraine. He said this week that France planned to provide Mirage 2000 warplanes to Kyiv, prompting the Kremlin on Friday to accuse him of fuelling tensions across Europe with what it called highly provocative statements.

RUSSIA SPECIALIST

Vinatier, a French-educated scholar specialising in Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia, has worked as an adviser to the Eurasia/Russia Programme at HD for 10 years, based in Geneva, according to his LinkedIn profile.

The website of HD says it has operated since 1999 to "help prevent, mitigate and resolve armed conflict through dialogue and mediation" in countries such as Spain, the Philippines and Libya.

Fellow academics who know Vinatier well described him as a respected scholar and dismissed suggestions that he was involved in espionage in Russia as baseless.

"He is a phenomenal academic who conducted research in risky conditions for over 15 years, including in Chechnya and Belarus", said Jean-Francois Ratelle, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa who said he frequently crossed paths professionally with Vinatier.

"The FSB (Russia's Federal Security Service) kept close tabs on him", Ratelle told Reuters, saying he too had been subjected to "dozens" of FSB interrogations over the years on research trips to Russia.

Vinatier's arrest "underlines how dangerous conducting academic research in Russia has become", he said.

"Russia is using him as a leverage to negotiate with Western countries. It is nothing to do with espionage, but rather part of a broader geopolitical bargaining process.”

Frédérique Longuet-Marx, a French anthropologist who was Vinatier's adviser for his PhD thesis on the Chechen diaspora, said she was "very shocked" to hear of his arrest.

She told Reuters Vinatier had worked on peacemaking efforts in several countries of the former Soviet Union and authored two books on Chechnya.

He left France nearly 15 years ago, Longuet-Marx said, because he could not find an academic appointment there. She said she last saw Vinatier in Lausanne, Switzerland in around 2014, where he told her he was working as a consultant on Russia and the Caucasus.

Reporting by Lucy Papachristou in London and Gabriel Stargardter in Paris

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