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Moscow — Russia is making overseas travel harder for some officials due to fears that foreign powers may try to gain access to state secrets during the worst crisis in relations with the West for more than 60 years, nine sources told Reuters.

The Federal Security Service (FSB) is putting pressure on employees across government ministries not to leave Russia at all, even to visit so-called “friendly” countries that have not imposed sanctions against Moscow, the sources said.

Foreign travel was highly restricted during Soviet times and even before the Ukraine war those with access to certain secret information were banned from leaving Russia. Major Western powers also have tight travel rules for those with access to top-level secrets.

Current Russian limits, however, are somewhat chaotic, with rules differing across state bodies, according to the sources, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

“You can’t go anywhere at all, not even to Uzbekistan or Belarus for the May holidays,” said one source. “You can go only if you have permission.”

Under pressure from the FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, the government is prohibiting employees from various departments from travelling anywhere without special permission, the person said. Individual departments do not want to be viewed as a fifth column.

The FSB did not respond to a request for comment.

The Ukraine war has triggered the deepest crisis in Moscow’s relations with the West since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and President Vladimir Putin says the US and its allies are essentially fighting a hybrid war against Russia.

Fears that Russian officials could be entrapped and forced to give up secrets affecting national security is the main reason driving the tougher rules, according to the sources.

Another concern is that officials will simply be detained and then extradited to the West - or offered a deal to spill their secrets.

One source said those in government were informally banned from travel in 2022, a measure that was formally adopted in mid-2023. Now, similar restrictions have been introduced for people privy to state secrets across ministries.

Another person said the rules varied depending on security clearance, with access to more secret information reducing the travel options available.

The definition of a “state secret” is broad in Russia and has been widened even further since the war.

It includes anything that could damage the Russian state, including not only military, nuclear or security intelligence, but also reserves data, production and consumption of natural resources, export data, some economic policy, some scientific findings and any details about how secrets are protected.

The detention in London in January of Dmitry Ovsyannikov, a former governor of Sevastopol in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, was one of the triggers for the stricter rules, one official said. Ovsyannikov is now on bail in Britain, awaiting trial.

Russia has long complained that its citizens, particularly diplomats and officials, are followed and harassed by security services when they travel to the West. Western diplomats face similar treatment in Russia, a Western diplomatic source told Reuters.

Russian rules differ across state bodies. The two houses of Russia’s parliament decide on a case-by-case basis, while there is more freedom within the presidential administration.

For some, even “friendly” countries are off limits.

A source in parliament said staff at Russia’s State Duma lower house are banned from all foreign travel, with an unspoken rule that any requests will be rejected.

“I can’t even go to Minsk,” the person said.

For employees of the interior ministry, the FSB and Rosgvardiya national guard, there are realistically only 14 overseas holiday options once sanctions and extradition treaties are taken into account, said one official.

The majority are former Soviet states but also include Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria. Rosgvardiya and the interior ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Even travel to China, whose trade with Russia has ballooned in the last two years, is in question over extradition concerns, the official said.

A different person said holders of state secrets had been restricted from overseas travel for months, both for unfriendly and friendly countries, unless there is a compelling reason, such as illness or to attend a funeral.

Another person said finance ministry officials have been barred from all overseas travel except business trips.

One state official, that person added, was forced to quit after it became known that their son was studying in the US.

The finance ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A state company employee said staff with access to state secrets have their passports locked up in a special internal department.

For energy ministry officials, freedom to travel is at the supervisor’s discretion, another source said. The ministry did not immediately respond to a comment request.


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