Russia's Foreign Ministry rejected U.S. reports that two officials traveling with diplomatic passports were drugged while attending a conference in St. Petersburg last year, suggesting instead that they might have had too much to drink.
The statement, made on October 4 by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, came in response to concerns made public by the U.S. State Department a day earlier about what it said was increased harassment of U.S. diplomats in Russia over the past two years.
RFE/RL reported October 3 that the incident with the U.S. officials occurred during a UN anticorruption conference in St. Petersburg in November. One of them was hospitalized, in what officials later concluded was part of a wider, escalating pattern.
According to one U.S. government official, and another former official also knowledgeable about the case, the U.S. diplomats were part of a delegation of Americans attending the Conference of the States Parties to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, held on November 2-6 in St. Petersburg.
The U.S. government official told RFE/RL that investigators concluded that the two Americans -- a man and a woman -- were slipped a so-called date rape drug, most likely at a bar in the St. Petersburg hotel where they were staying.
One of the Americans was incapacitated and brought to a Western-style medical clinic in the city for treatment, and to have blood and tissue samples taken in order to determine precisely what caused the sudden illness. However, while the person was at the clinic, the electricity suddenly went out and the staff was unable to obtain the necessary tissue samples, the official said.
The individual was then flown out of the country for further medical treatment, but by then it was too late to gather proper samples, the official said.
Because the U.S. officials in attendance at the St. Petersburg conference were not top-level State or Justice officials, the State Department decided to take a quiet approach to the incident. A formal note of protest was lodged, the official said, but Russian authorities asked for evidence that the person had been drugged, and the Americans lacked samples.
When investigators sought timesheet records for personnel working at the hotel where the U.S. officials had been staying, the hotel managers said there were none for that particular period of time, the official added, a claim that also raised suspicions.
In the end, the U.S. government official told RFE/RL, the response given by Russian officials to the investigators looking into the drugging was: without more evidence, there’s nothing more we can do.
In his statement published on the Foreign Ministry’s website, Ryabkov denied that U.S. officials had lodged any protest, but also said Russian authorities had conducted some sort of investigation that concluded no Americans sought medical treatment in St. Petersburg at the time.
Ryabkov suggested that the Americans had merely drunk too much.
“Even then, having quickly responded to the relevant information from the U.S. Embassy, we requested that [they] specify the claims, but we received nothing, not even the names of the ‘victims.’ An investigation conducted by the Russian [authorities] showed that during that period of time, no Americans sought assistance from St. Petersburg medical institutions,” he said.
“If they had, contrary to expectations, had a little too much to drink in a hotel bar, then they only would have themselves to blame,” Ryabkov said.
Ryabkov asserted that Russian diplomats had also been subject to harassment, saying that U.S. intelligence agencies had stepped up efforts to recruit informants or spies.
Ryabkov asserted that U.S. intelligence agencies had stepped up efforts to recruit Russian diplomats to become informants or spies. He also repeated Moscow’s longstanding complaints about what Moscow portrays as the illegal U.S. abduction of Russian citizens from third countries.
That’s a reference to arrests in recent years including those of Viktor Bout, who was convicted in a U.S. court of arms trafficking, and Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot convicted of drug trafficking. Both were arrested in third countries and extradited to the United States.
Moscow has sought for years to have them released, and earlier this year, Ryabkov suggested that they might be swapped for U.S. citizens being held in Russian prisons for various crimes.
The State Department told RFE/RL that U.S. diplomats had seen increased harassment since 2014, a statement that was reiterated publicly by department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau on October 3.
"We remain troubled by the way our diplomatic and consular staff have been treated over the past two years. We have raised our concerns at the highest levels," Trudeau said. "In particular, the harassment and surveillance of our diplomatic personnel in Moscow by security -- personnel and traffic police -- has increased significantly. As we’ve said before, we find this unacceptable.”
In June, the issue gained new attention when an American entering the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was tackled by a Russian guard. The American was identified by the State Department as an accredited diplomat, and said he had shown his identification to the guard under normal procedure.
Russian Foreign Ministry officials, however, said the guard, who was employed by the country's main security agency, the FSB, was only doing his duty: protecting the embassy from what he deemed to be a suspicious person who, they said, was also wearing a disguise.
Later, Moscow claimed the American was a CIA officer working under diplomatic cover, a common technique used by many countries, including both Russia and the United States.
The incident was captured on video, and the footage was later aired on Russian television.
In the aftermath, Moscow and Washington each kicked out two of the other side's accredited diplomats in tit-for-tat expulsions that were reminiscent of the Cold War.