Russia says French researcher pled guilty to illegally collecting military details

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) said on Wednesday that French researcher Laurent Vinatier had pleaded guilty during questioning to illegally collecting sensitive Russian military information that could be used by hostile intelligence services.

Vinatier, an expert on the former Soviet Union with long experience of working in Russia, was shown last month being arrested in a central Moscow restaurant by masked officers from the FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

Vinatier, 47, could face up to five years in prison if convicted. He was placed in pre-trial custody until Aug. 5, despite a request to free him endorsed by the French embassy.

The FSB said in a statement that Vinatier had tried to use his numerous contacts with political scientists, sociologists, economists, military experts and government officials to collect military details "that could be used by foreign intelligence services to the detriment of the security of the Russian Federation."

"The French citizen fully admitted his guilt," the FSB, one of Russia's most powerful and feared institutions, said.

Russian investigators said that Vinatier had for several years failed to comply with a Russian law on foreign agents and said they had audio recordings of some of the meetings. At least seven of his contacts have been questioned.

The arrest of Vinatier, who joins a growing number of Western citizens detained in Russia, was seen by Western diplomats as a signal to French President Emmanuel Macron who has repeatedly urged European leaders to step up their support for Ukraine as Russian forces advance.

Macron has denied that Vinatier, an employee of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), a Swiss-based conflict mediation group, worked for the French state.

He has described the arrest as part of a disinformation campaign by Moscow and called on Russia to free Vinatier.

In a statement following Vinatier's arrest, HD said:

"In the course of HD’s activities as an impartial and independent mediation organisation, our people work around the world and routinely meet with a wide range of officials, experts and other parties with the aim of advancing efforts to prevent, mitigate and resolve armed conflict."

Under Russian law, a person is obliged to contact the justice ministry and register as a "foreign agent" if they are involved in political activity or collecting military information while receiving financial or other help from abroad.

Western leaders say Russia is currently gripped by "spy mania" and that Moscow is using trumped-up charges to collect a group of Westerners who could later be swapped for Russian citizens detained in the West.

Russian officials say that the West is gripped by anti-Russian paranoia and say that Western spy services are trying to collect secrets and sow discord to cleave Russia apart.

(Reporting by Reuters; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Andrew Osborn and Kim Coghill)