Russia arrests California woman with dual US-Russian citizenship for treason after she gave $51 to Ukraine, employer says

By Sebastian Shukla, Nathan Hodge, Anna Chernova, Maria Kostenko and Christian Edwards | CNN

A US-Russian dual citizen was arrested in Russia on charges of treason for allegedly donating just $51 to a Ukrainian charity, according to the Californian spa where she worked.

Ksenia Karelina. (CNN) 

Ksenia Karelina, a 33-year-old woman who lives in Los Angeles, was arrested in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg for allegedly “providing financial assistance to a foreign state in activities directed against Russia security,” according to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).

Video shared by Russian state media RIA Novosti showed what appeared to be Karelina with a hat pulled over her eyes being escorted by a security official before being handcuffed and appearing in a courtroom holding cell.

Karelina, who became a US citizen in 2021, entered Russia on January 2 but the US did not learn of her arrest until February 8, a US official said.

She is accused of donating $51.80 to a Ukrainian charity in the US, according to a statement from her employer, a spa at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, California.

“Ciel Spa management and team is devastated to share that our beloved esthetician and friend, Ksenia Karelina, has been wrongly accused, arrested, and [is] currently being held in the Russian Prison system,” the statement said.

“Ksenia, a dual citizen, went to Russia to visit her 90-year-old grandmother, parents and younger sister. She has been accused of treason for allegedly donating $51.80 to a Ukrainian charity in the US.”

Chris Van Heerden, Karelina’s boyfriend, told CNN he had bought her tickets to visit the country for her birthday so that she could see relatives and she was very excited to go there.

He also said that she was “proud to be Russian, and she doesn’t watch the news. She doesn’t intervene with anything about the war.”

Asked about the possible 20-year prison sentence she now faces, he said it hurts and that “she’s so full of life. She needs to be out there, needs to be with her friends..she loves life.”

“I believe America will bring her back to me,” Van Heerden added.

The State Department on Tuesday said it was aware of Karelina’s detention and that the US has not been granted consular access to her.

“Russia does not recognize dual citizenship, considers them to be Russian citizens first and foremost, and so oftentimes we have a difficult time getting consular assistance, but we will pursue it in all matters where a US citizen is detained,” State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller said at a press briefing.

The FSB also accused Karelina of taking part in “public actions to support the Kyiv regime” while in the US. “Operational search activities and investigative actions continue. The court chose a preventive measure in the form of detention for the accused,” it said.

The Sverdlovsk Regional Court press service told RIA her hearing was meant to take place on Tuesday, but due to the absence of a lawyer it has now been postponed until February 29.

New York-based non-profit Razom for Ukraine, the organization Karelina reportedly gave funds to, said it was “appalled” by reports of her detention.

“Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly shown that he holds no sovereign border, foreign nationality, or international treaty above his own narrow interest,” said Razom’s CEO Dora Chomiak in a statement posted on social media Tuesday.

Razom urged the US government to “do everything in its power” to demand the release “of all those unjustly detained by Russia,” Chomiak said.

She added that Razom is a US-based and funded charity that conducts activities “in keeping with our charitable purpose and our legal obligations as an American charitable organization,” which it said were “focused on humanitarian aid, disaster relief, education and advocacy.”

In a post on Russian social media platform VK in November 2021, Karelina shared a picture of herself standing between two American flags and waving a paper flag of her own as she celebrated becoming a US citizen. Her VK profile said she graduated from the Ural Federal University in Yekaterinburg in 2014, and that she also studied at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Other images of Karelina have emerged showing her modeling for the stock photography company Shutterstock, including some that show her posing as a ballerina In New York City in 2017.

US citizens detained in Russia