Russia arrests Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich on spying charge

BySarah Dean, Julia Horowitz and Eliza Mackintosh, CNN, CNNWire
Friday, March 31, 2023
Russia arrests Wall Street Journal reporter on spying charge
The Federal Security Service said Thursday that Evan Gershkovich was detained in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg.

Russian authorities have detained an American reporter for the Wall Street Journal and accused him of spying, signaling a significant ratcheting of both Moscow's tensions with the United States and its campaign against foreign news media, which has been under intense pressure since President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

Russia's main security service, the FSB, claimed Thursday that Evan Gershkovich, a correspondent based in Moscow, had been trying to obtain state secrets. The Wall Street Journal has categorically rejected those allegations, saying in a statement that it "vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter."

Almar Latour, the chief executive of Dow Jones, which publishes The Wall Street Journal, condemned Gershkovich's arrest in a memo to staffers Thursday, which was obtained by CNN, saying the company is working "around the clock" to secure his release. "This is an incredibly disturbing development," Latour said.

A Russian district court in Moscow said Thursday that Gershkovich would be detained until May 29.

It is the first time an American journalist has been detained on accusations by Moscow of spying since the Cold War, and comes a week after US authorities arrested Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, who they accused of being a Russian spy and was indicted in federal court.

The Kremlin did not comment when asked if Gershkovich's arrest was a tit-for-tat move following the arrest last week of Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov in the US, who is accused of being a Russian spy. Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov was asked by CNN during a daily briefing Thursday if Gershkovich's arrest could be a "retaliatory measure" after the US arrested a Russian on espionage charges last week. "I do not have such information. I have nothing to say on this topic," he replied.

National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby declined to weigh in on reports Gershkovich's detention may be a retaliatory move, telling reporters Thursday that they were still trying to gather information.

But Kirby did acknowledge the challenges facing journalists in Moscow, saying that while the administration respects that reporters in Russia face risks "it doesn't change our deep concern about Americans being in Russia," and again reiterated a warning to Americans to avoid traveling to the country.

The FSB said Gershkovich was detained in Yekaterinburg, on the eastern side of the Ural Mountains, and claimed he was "trying to obtain secret information" relating to "the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex."

The FSB said the reporter, who is accredited by Russia's foreign ministry, was "acting on the instructions of the American side."

The US State Department began tracking Gershkovich's arrest Wednesday afternoon before the news broke publicly, according to two US officials. The US government was first informed of his arrest by The Wall Street Journal, according to another US official.

The State Department and White House said their officials had spoken with The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday night about Gershkovich's arrest, and that Biden was briefed. The Biden administration has been in contact with his family, and the State Department has reached out to the Russian side, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement Thursday.

"The State Department has been in direct touch with the Russian government on this matter, including actively working to secure consular access to Mr. Gershkovich," Jean-Pierre said. "The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable. We condemn the detention of Mr. Gershkovich in the strongest terms."

Consular access could take several days, "due to Russia's administrative procedures and security requirements," Vedant Patel, State Department principal deputy spokesperson, said in a briefing Thursday. He also said that the US Embassy in Moscow had requested official notification of Gershkovich's arrest, which is required under bilateral consular convention.

Asked by CNN if the State Department would designate Gershkovich as wrongfully detained, Patel said that he did not want to get ahead of the process, but that he did not believe there was any truth to the charges against the journalist.

Earlier, Russia's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Yevgeny Ivanov said that the US had not formally approached the Russian Federation about Gershkovich's case, state news agency TASS reported.

Gershkovich covers Russia, Ukraine and the former Soviet Union, according to his biography on the Wall Street Journal's website. He previously worked for news agency Agence France-Presse, the Moscow Times and the New York Times.

Detained Americans

Detentions of other Americans have led to lengthy and difficult negations between Washington and Moscow.

US basketball star Brittney Griner, detained in February 2022 on what the US described as trumped-up drug smuggling charges, was released in December in a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

However, the US did not secure the release of another American, Paul Whelan. Whelan, a former Marine who is a US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen, was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. He was sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison in 2020 after a trial US officials called unfair.

"Our family is sorry to hear that another American family will have to experience the same trauma that we have had to endure for the past 1,553 days," Paul's brother David Whelan said in an email to the press on Thursday. "Unfortunately, the White House does not seem to have found a way to resolve cases like Paul's, where an American is falsely charged with espionage by the Kremlin."

The US has continued campaigning for Paul Whelan's release. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier this month that a "serious proposal" had been put to Kremlin officials. But David said that he had "started to wonder whether Paul's case really is a priority," while other Americans have been free, adding that he hoped Paul and Gershkovich would be able to return to their families soon.

State Department spokesperson Patel said that Whelan's case remained an "absolute priority," and that it was important not to "make comparisons" between Whelan and Gershkovich's cases. Patel added that the US Embassy would be speaking with Whelan on Thursday, and consular officers last visited him in person in late January.

Russia's deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, told TASS on Thursday that it was premature to raise the possibility of a prisoner exchange for Gershkovich.

Meanwhile, US lawmakers referred to his detention as a "hostage-taking" and "kidnapping," saying that it is yet another attempt by Russia to ramp up pressure on the West, following a series of ominous declarations by Putin referencing his nuclear arsenal.

Putin last week said Moscow plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus. While there's no guarantee he will follow through with the plan, the statement sparked concern in the West, coming hot on the heels of Putin announcing that Russia would suspend participation in the New START treaty, a key nuclear arms reduction agreement.

Florida Congressman Jared Moskowitz and California Congressman Adam Schiff described the detention of Evan Gershkovich on espionage charges as a "kidnapping," with Moskowitz telling CNN, "we are in very dangerous territory with [Putin]. This is all about leverage and so now we have a human life in the balance."

Moskowitz, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said "this is not the game that Putin should be playing. I think Joe Biden has shown that he's not someone who's going to be toyed with when it comes to these sort of things," adding Gershkovich "should be released immediately."

Schiff, the former chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN that this latest move should be seen "in concert with their nuclear announcements, the abrogation of their treaty obligations, as a way of just ramping up pressure on the West, signaling that Moscow's going to use whatever tools it has, including essentially hostage-taking, to try to deter the United States and the west from opposing its ambitions in Ukraine."

Gershkovich's detention also marks a significant stepping up of Russia's campaign against foreign media.

Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin made it a crime to disseminate "fake" information about the Russian army and the invasion of Ukraine. That prompted global news organizations including CNN to temporarily suspend broadcasting from the country.

Russian foreign ministry's spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Thursday that Gershkovich's arrest was "not related to his journalism," claiming without evidence that he used his press visa and accreditation as cover for other activity. "I'm now reading a lot of reports in the Western media saying that he had accreditation from the Foreign Ministry, therefore he's a journalist. No, no, no. This is what he claimed to be," she said.

Gershkovich is the first journalist to be accused of spying by Russia since 1986, when reporter Nick Daniloff was detained on a similar charge while working for the U.S. News and World Report newspaper and magazine. He spent weeks in a Russian prison before the Reagan administration negotiated his release.

Speaking at a press conference after his release in 1986, Daniloff called it a "very complex situation," stressing that without President Reagan's "very deep and personal interest" in his case he would have likely been imprisoned for much longer. "In my case, the FBI had arrested a Soviet in New York for espionage, and the Russians then arrested me," Daniloff told CNN. He added that negotiation eventually secured his release, involving a "solution for the guy who was arrested in New York."

The National Press club on Thursday called on Russia to immediately release Gershkovich, calling his detention "unjust," and also urged action from the State Department.

"Evan Gershkovich is a journalist. He should be released immediately and unharmed and allowed to return to his important work," said Eileen O'Reilly, president of the National Press Club, and Gil Klein, journalism president of the National Press Club, in a statement.

The European Union's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, condemned Gershkovich's detention and Russia's crackdown on the free press Thursday, saying on Twitter: "Journalists must be allowed to exercise their profession freely and deserve protection. The Russian authorities demonstrate yet again their systematic disregard for media freedom."

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