Russian authorities detained a US journalist working in the country and charged him with espionage, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Russia’s FSB security service said Evan Gershkovich, a well-respected reporter from the Wall Street Journal, “was collecting classified information about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.”
According to the FSB, Gershkovich was “operating on directions from the American side.” Many commentators, however, accused Moscow of “hostage-taking” by arresting a high-profile journalist who could be used as leverage in a future prisoner swap.
Gershkovich was detained on Wednesday while reporting in Ekaterinburg, Urals. He arrived at the Lefortovo courts in Moscow on Thursday for a brief hearing during which the charges were officially presented. According to local media, the judge ordered him remanded in pre-trial detention until at least May 29.
“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich. We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family,” the newspaper said.
Friends and colleagues of Gershkovich called the allegations absurd, describing Gershkovich as a professional and the allegations against him as “ridiculous”.
The arrest amounted to “hostage-taking as a tool of statecraft,” Russia analyst Mark Galeotti wrote on Twitter.
“It’s evident that they’ve taken a hostage,” acknowledged Ivan Pavlov, Russia’s top espionage defense lawyer who now lives outside the country. “They’ve chosen a well-known journalist from a reputable news organization.” The plan is to have an ace in their sleeve for bargaining.”
According to Pavlov, espionage trials like this can take up to two years from arrest to sentencing. Gershkovich’s only chance of release was to be included in a trade or for the current Russian leadership to fall.
“Back in 2015, we were sometimes able to get a few people out, but now that has become impossible,” he said.
The White House and State Department did not respond immediately, but Mike Quigley, co-chair of the congressional Ukraine caucus, branded the detention “the latest salvo in Putin’s efforts to use Americans as leverage in his battle with Ukraine” and demanded Gershkovich’s immediate release.
“Vladimir Putin’s decision to arrest an American journalist in Russia is an escalation not seen between our two countries since the days of the Soviet Union and the cold war,” said Quigley in a statement.
Gershkovich, 31, has lived in Moscow for six years, speaks fluent Russian, and is a foreign ministry-accredited journalist. Gershkovich previously worked for the Moscow Times and Agence France-Presse in Russia before joining the Wall Street Journal.
Gershkovich was apparently working on a story about Wagner, the ostensibly private military company led by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin that has done much of the fighting in Ukraine, before his arrest.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to launch a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine last February, reporting from within Russia has become much more difficult. Russia’s foreign ministry has placed scores of journalists on blacklists, preventing them from entering the country, and has denied accreditation to others.
A slew of rules, including one that criminalizes “fakes,” have made accurate reporting on the war from within Russia difficult and dangerous, and many journalists have fled.
However, this is the first time a foreign reporter has been charged with crimes since the beginning of the war.
“It’s a signal to foreign journalists that this is it, no more work. The unspoken immunity for accredited journalists does not work any more,” said Pavlov.
“Russian journalists heard this signal earlier and almost all of them left. Foreign journalists continued to work, but the times have changed and you can’t hope for business as usual any more,” he added.
Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for Russia’s foreign ministry, wrote on Telegram on Thursday morning that it was not the first time that journalistic accreditation had been used in Russia as “cover” for other activities.
“What the Wall Street Journal employee was doing in Ekaterinburg had nothing to do with journalism,” she wrote.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, said Gershkovich was “caught red-handed”, RIA Novosti reported.
“Peskov’s statement is direct evidence that Putin is personally behind this and there will be no civilised way to extract the journalist, only an exchange,” wrote political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya.
High-profile arrests of foreigners in Russia frequently appear to be intended to increase a “exchange pool” of inmates from which Russia might swap Russians detained abroad.
This year, Russian authorities detained and convicted American basketball player Brittney Griner to nine years in prison on drug allegations. In December, she was exchanged for Viktor Bout, an arms dealer known as the Merchant of Death who had been detained in the United States for a long time.
Sources indicated last week that negotiations between Western countries and Russia were underway for the prospective exchange of two alleged Russian deep-cover spies caught in Slovenia, but that no deal could be reached. Several analysts suggested that charging Gershkovich with espionage could be done to strengthen Moscow’s negotiation position in sending these and other inmates back to Russia.
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