Laurent Vinatier is an expert on the post-Soviet world, the Caucasus and Central Asia

In the climate of confrontation between Moscow and Paris, the arrest of Frenchman Laurent Vinatier in the Russian capital on Thursday, June 6, has all the hallmarks of a diplomatic event likely to further strain relations. French President Emmanuel Macron described it as among the “fake news,” “threats,” and “provocations” carried out by the Kremlin against France.

Images of the arrest of the 48-year-old, an expert in the post-Soviet world who is involved in informal mediation attempts in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, were released at midday by the Investigative Committee, a powerful Russian judicial body directly answerable to the Kremlin. Vinatier, whose face was blurred, was approached on the terrace of a Moscow café by masked men in uniform, who he followed, without resistance, to a van parked nearby.

Russia reported accusations that for several years, Vinatier had “gathered information in the field of military and military-technical activities of the Russian Federation,” calling this information “that could be used against state security.”

Such phrasing might have suggested an accusation of espionage, but the legal argument put forward, for the time being, by Moscow is more subtle, and seemingly less serious. Vinatier is accused of not having declared himself as a “foreign agent” – a label that complicates the lives of those so designated and which, since 2019, has been extended to foreigners.

‘In no way does he work for France’

According to the Russian judiciary, Vinatier should have known that he could be covered by this legislation and asked to be placed on the dedicated register. It is on the basis of this same accusation that the Russian-American journalist Alsu Kurmasheva has been detained since October 2023.

Vinatier has an atypical profile in Moscow. A doctor of philosophy and a researcher specializing in Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia, the subjects of most of his books, he has visited the Russian capital regularly. As a teacher, he had collaborated with several think tanks, including the Thomas More Institute.

In 2014, he joined the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a discreet Swiss-based institution that works, often in cooperation with the United Nations, in the field of informal diplomacy and conflict mediation. The president of its board of directors is former French diplomat Pierre Vimont.

The Swiss NGO confirmed the arrest of its employee on Thursday. Macron, meanwhile, insisted: “In no way does he work, or did he used to work for France, but we will provide him with all the necessary consular protection.”

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