Russia detains Los Angeles ballerina on suspicion of treason

Russian authorities have detained a woman who is a Los Angeles resident and dual national on suspicion of treason for raising funds to support Ukraine in its defense against the Kremlin’s invasion.

A senior U.S. official confirmed to NBC News that the detained American is Ksenia Karelina, a Russian American ballerina. Karelina, 33, became a U.S. citizen in 2021, a U.S. official said.

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg said early Tuesday that the woman, who it did not name, has dual Russian American citizenship.

“She’s such a gentle flower and I’m just very, very concerned about her physical being, about her mental being, I just want her back," Karelina's former mother-in-law, Eleonora Srebroski, told NBC News on Tuesday night.

The White House said it was working to secure consular access.

“She is not safe there and if we do not help her, she will spend the rest of her life in jail," Srebroski said.

Since 2022, the FSB alleges the woman has been “involved in providing financial assistance to a foreign state in activities directed against the security of our country.”

The statement added that the suspect collected money that was spent on medicine, equipment, weapons and ammunition in the Ukrainian war effort. No other details nor a description of any evidence were released.

“In addition, in the United States, this citizen repeatedly took part in public actions in support of the Kiev regime,” it said.

ballerina dancer brooklyn bridge nyc (Nick Starichenko / Shutterstock)
ballerina dancer brooklyn bridge nyc (Nick Starichenko / Shutterstock)

Karelina entered Russia on Jan. 2, and the U.S. learned on Feb. 8 that she had been arrested, a U.S. official said.

She is accused of treason under article 275 of the Russian Criminal Code, which is punishable by 12 to 20 years in prison, as well as confiscation of property.

Karelina works as an esthetician at Ciel Spa in the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, and co-workers said she was in Russia to visit her 90-year-old grandmother, parents and younger sister.

Her alleged crime was donating $51.80 to a Ukrainian charity in the United States, Karelina's co-workers said. Authorities have not confirmed that.

"To know Ksenia is to love her and this heartbreaking news is so difficult to share but it must be done to spread her story and seek justice," they said in a statement posted on Facebook.

As with previous arrests of foreign- and dual-nationals, the woman is detained under a pre-trial custody order.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that he couldn’t comment much on the case, but that the White House and State Department are gathering more information. He said that it is dangerous for U.S. citizens or dual citizens to be in Russia right now.

“If you’re a U.S. citizen, including a dual national, residing in or traveling in Russia, you ought to leave right now if you can,” Kirby said. "Just depart immediately."

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said at a briefing Tuesday that the U.S. is seeking consular assistance, but that has not yet been granted.

“Russia does not recognize dual citizenship, considers them to be Russian citizens first and foremost,” Miller said. “And so oftentimes we have a difficult time getting consular assistance, but we will pursue it in all matters where a U.S. citizen is detained.”

The nonprofit Razom for Ukraine, in a statement that responded to reports that a dual-national was charged in connection with a donation, said it was “appalled.”

“Our activities, which are in keeping with our charitable purpose and our legal obligations as an American charitable organization, are focused on humanitarian aid, disaster relief, education and advocacy,” Razom for Ukraine CEO Dora Chomiak said.

NBC News has not confirmed details of the alleged "financial assistance" on which Russia claimed the charge was based.

A spokesperson for Razom said it does not share information about who donates or subscribes.

"We are very concerned about any American citizen taken hostage by Russia," the company said.

In January, U.S. national Robert Romanov Woodland was arrested and detained on drug trafficking charges.

Alsu Kurmasheva, a dual Russian American reporter, was detained late last year and charged with failure to register as a foreign agent.

And Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has been held for nearly a year on espionage charges that he denies.

It was confirmed early Tuesday that Gershkovich will remain in jail until at least March 30 after Moscow City Court rejected his latest appeal, according to state media outlet RIA.

The U.S. says Gershkovich is one of a number of its citizens wrongfully detained in the country, including former Marine Paul Whelan.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine will mark its second anniversary Saturday, with President Joe Biden's administration considering whether to supply Kyiv with long-range ATACMS missiles while a new aid package is held up in Congress.

Karelina’s former mother-in-law, Srebroski, said she hopes attention on the case will help bring Karelina home.

"We live here in a country of justice, and we do have some power and influence and we can do something to help her out, to create some noise, to bring attention to this situation," Srebroski said.

CORRECTION (Feb. 21, 2024, 5:45 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the amount Karelina donated to a Ukrainian charity in the United States. It was $51.80, not $58.10.

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