Russia Detains US Journalist for Two Months on Spy Charges

Russia detained US journalist Evan Gershkovich for alleged espionage, triggering a new confrontation between Moscow and Washington.

(Bloomberg) — Russia detained US journalist Evan Gershkovich for alleged espionage, triggering a new confrontation between Moscow and Washington.

The 31-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter was arrested in the Urals by Federal Security Service agents and brought to Moscow where a district court ordered him to be held at the Lefortovo pre-trial detention center until at least May 29 during a hearing on Thursday. The case was classified as “top secret.” 

The newspaper denied the allegations and asked for the immediate release of “our trusted and dedicated reporter.” Gershkovich also denied the allegations, state-run Tass news service reported.

It’s the first time Russia has charged a US journalist with spying since the Cold War, marking a major escalation in tensions regarding detained citizens amid the spiraling crisis over President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. 

The incident comes less than four months since Russia released WNBA star Brittney Griner from prison in a exchange deal with the US to free convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout in December and less than a week after the US accused a Russian national Sergey Cherkasov of operating as an undercover agent to gather intelligence while enrolled as a graduate student in Washington. 

US Reacts

The security service known as the FSB announced it had detained Gershkovich in the city of Yekaterinburg 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 website statement. 

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

The question now shifts to how the Biden administration will respond. 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. 

Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre condemned the detention “in the strongest terms” in a statement. “The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable,” she said.

The release of basketball star Griner 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. 

Efforts are continuing to reach agreement on 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.

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.”

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.

(Adds White House response in)

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