Russia Detains American Journalist in ‘Dark Turn’ for Ties

Russia detained American journalist Evan Gershkovich for alleged espionage while he was on a reporting trip in central Russia, the first time a US reporter has been held on spying charges since the Cold War.

(Bloomberg) — Russia detained American journalist Evan Gershkovich for alleged espionage while he was on a reporting trip in central Russia, the first time a US reporter has been held on spying charges since the Cold War.

The 31-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter was arrested in Yekaterinburg, about 880 mikes (1,400 kilometers) east of Moscow, by Federal Security Service agents and brought to Moscow, where a district court ordered him to be held until at least May 29. The case was classified as “top secret.” 

The newspaper denied the allegations and asked for the immediate release of “our trusted and dedicated reporter.” A State Department spokesman said the US had asked for consular access and it would be several days before the request is granted.

“In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the Kremlin’s continued attempts to intimidate, repress, and punish journalists and civil society voices,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

The arrest marks the first time Russia has charged a US journalist with spying since the Cold War, and signals a major escalation in tensions amid the spiraling crisis over President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. 

It immediately raised fears that the Biden administration would be pulled into another protracted diplomatic negotiation for an American citizen’s release. Less than four months ago, WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from prison in an exchange for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Less than a week ago, the US unveiled charges against a Russian national named Sergey Cherkasov for allegedly operating as an undercover agent to gather intelligence while enrolled as a graduate student in Washington. Cherkasov is now in prison in Brazil.

“This looks like a hostage taking, and we’re back in a Brittney Griner-type negotiation where the Russians are going to ask in exchange the release of illegal intelligence officers,” said Max Bergmann, director of of the Stuart Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It is a real violation of how our countries have interacted, not just over the last year, but really since during the Cold War period. It represents a dark turn.”

US Reacts

Russia’s FSB security service announced it had detained Gershkovich on suspicion “of espionage in the interests of the American government.” The journalist “collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex,” it said in a statement. 

Gershkovich was “caught red-handed,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on a conference call. 

The question now shifts to what the Biden administration does next. US officials spoke with his employer last night, have been in touch with his family and also in direct touch with the Russian government to get consular access. 

Following Blinken, several US officials condemned the arrest. “The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. 

Griner’s release followed protracted negotiations between Russian and US officials. It also came after the Biden administration unexpectedly swapped imprisoned Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko last April for former US Marine Trevor Reed, who was serving nine years after being convicted in Russia in 2020. 

The US is still trying to secure the release of another detained former US Marine, Paul Whelan, who’s serving a 16-year sentence imposed by a Moscow court in 2020 on spying charges he denies.

Gershkovich’s detention harks back to the 1986 case of US reporter Nicholas Daniloff, who spent nearly two weeks in Lefortovo prison on espionage charges. Daniloff later wrote that he was a “hostage” for Gennadi Zakharov, a Soviet employee at the United Nations who’d been arrested for spying in New York days earlier.  

The Dutch secret service in June accused Cherkasov of attempting to infiltrate the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The ICC on March 17 issued an arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes related to the abduction of children from Ukraine.

Could Putin Really Be Prosecuted for War Crimes?: QuickTake

Gershkovich is accredited to the Wall Street Journal’s bureau in Moscow with the Russian Foreign Ministry, and previously worked as a reporter for Agence France-Presse and The Moscow Times, covering Russia and Ukraine extensively. He was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and attended Bowdoin College in Maine.

His recent stories included an examination of the impact of international sanctions on Russia’s economy and one about rising tensions between the Kremlin elite and the Wagner paramilitary force, run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, that has been trying for months to take the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. 

The detention of the journalist “is a frontal attack on all foreign correspondents who still work in Russia,” Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia’s security services, wrote on Twitter. “It means that the FSB is off the leash,” he said, referring to a Russian acronym for the Federal Security Service.

The Yekaterinburg region in the Urals mountains is a major hub of Russia’s defense industry, where factories produce tanks and armored vehicles, missiles and artillery systems.

–With assistance from Iain Marlow.

(Updates with US seeking consular access in third paragraph.)

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