Watch CBS News

Fear for California woman Ksenia Karelina after arrest in Russia on suspicion of treason over Ukraine donation

Russia arrests ballerina for treason
Ballerina Ksenia Karelina detained in Russia on treason charge 03:31

Moscow — Russia's FSB security services said on Tuesday it had arrested a woman with dual U.S.-Russian nationality who was suspected of treason for raising funds for the Ukrainian army. The FSB in the central Urals city of Yekaterinburg said it had "suppressed the illegal activities" of a 33-year-old woman and taken her into custody. The woman has been identified as Los Angeles resident Ksenia Karelina, an amateur ballerina who recently gained U.S. citizenship. 

Her former mother-in-law Eleonora Srebroski tells CBS News that, in the wake of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny's death in prison, she's afraid of what might happen to Karelina. 

The FSB said she had been "proactively collecting funds... which were subsequently used to purchase tactical medical items, equipment, means of destruction and ammunition for the Ukrainian armed forces." 

CBS News correspondent Imtiaz Tyab reports that Karelina was arrested earlier in February on suspicion of treason and fundraising for Ukraine's army after making a donation of only about $51 to a Ukrainian charity. The Russian authorities also said she had attended pro-Ukraine rallies in the U.S.

An undated photo from her Facebook page shows U.S.-Russian national Knesia Karelina, who was arrested in Russia in Feb. 2024 over suspected treason. Facebook/Knesia Karelina

"I'm very, very concerned about her, about her physical wellbeing," Srebroski told CBS News on Tuesday. "We know that Navalny was just killed a few days ago. We know it wasn't just a death. It was the murder."

Srebroski, who called Karelina "just a very beautiful human being," said as far as she knew, the recently naturalized U.S. citizen had returned to Russia to attend university-level classes on the tourism industry. She said ballet is her hobby and passion. 

"I am in shock," she told CBS News, adding that there was "no justice in Russia whatsoever."

A screengrab from video aired on Feb. 20, 2024 by Russia's state-run broadcaster RU24 shows a woman identified by the FSB security service as a dual U.S.-Russian national from Los Angeles being led into a courtroom in Yekaterinburg after her arrest on suspicion of treason. Reuters/RU24

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti posted a video from the FSB showing hooded officers handcuffing and escorting a woman in a white coat with a white hat pulled down over her eyes. The FSB said she had been acting "against the security of our country" and had been supporting the Ukrainian army while in the United States.

Treason is punishable by up to life in prison under legislation toughened since the start of the military offensive.

The announcement came just four days before the two-year mark of Russia's ongoing, full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which sparked the most devastating war on the European continent since the end of World War II. President Biden has been pushing U.S. lawmakers to clear additional funding for Ukraine, which analysts say is vital to ensuring the country can continue to defend itself against the Russian aggression.     

Several U.S. nationals are currently imprisoned in Russia, including Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested last March on espionage charges that he, his employer and the U.S. government have rejected as baseless. He learned on Tuesday that a Moscow court had rejected his latest appeal against his detention. 

Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan has been in prison in Russia since 2018, serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that he had spoken on the phone with Whelan, whom, along with Gershkovich, the U.S. has deemed to be wrongfully detained by Russia. 

Paul Whelan, imprisoned in Russia, issues plea to Biden: "He's the man that can bring me home" 02:12

"Our intensive efforts to bring Paul home continue every single day, and they will until he and Evan Gershkovich and every other American wrongfully detained is back with their loved ones," Blinken said after the call.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he wants to negotiate a prisoner exchange to swap Russians imprisoned abroad for U.S. citizens detained in Russia. The U.S. and Russia have carried out previous prisoner swaps, including the high-profile exchange at the end of 2022 that saw Russia release WNBA star Brittney Griner in exchange for the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had been jailed for years in the U.S.

As Tyab reports, the arrest of Karelina comes amid a widening crackdown on dissent across Russia following the death in a Russian prison of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. His supporters have continued to face arrest for any signs of support for the late Kremlin critic.

U.S. set to impose new sanctions on Russia after Alexey Navalny's death 02:02

Despite pleas from his wife and mother, Navalny's remains have yet to be released to his family.

In a worrying sign that Putin's crackdown on dissent could be widening outside of Russia's borders, the body of a Russian helicopter pilot who defected to Ukraine in August last year was found last week, riddled with bullet holes, in the coastal town in Spain where he'd taken up residence. Ukrainian intelligence officials confirmed his death, and while Russian authorities haven't confirmed or denied any link, when asked about it, the director of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service called him a "traitor" and a "moral corpse." 

Russia expert Jeff Hawn said with Putin likely emboldened as he heads into an election all but guaranteed to grant him another six-year term, the arrests of foreign nationals were likely to continue as Russia looks for more leverage in future prisoner swap negotiations.

"The arresting of American citizens is something I think we're going to see continue," Hawn said, "especially because Russia, increasingly, is engaging in hostage diplomacy."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.