Russia arrests Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, accuses him of "spying" for U.S.
Moscow — An American reporter for The Wall Street Journal has been arrested in Russia on charges of spying for Washington, Russia's FSB security services said Thursday. The announcement marks a serious escalation in Kremlin's efforts to silence perceived critics, a crackdown that gained momentum following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
The FSB security services said they had "halted the illegal activities of U.S. citizen Evan Gershkovich," saying The Wall Street Journal reporter was "suspected of spying in the interests of the American government."
Their statement confirmed that Gershkovich, 31, was working with press accreditation issued by the Russian foreign ministry. But the statement said he had been detained for gathering information "on an enterprise of the Russian military-industrial complex."
"The foreigner was detained in Yekaterinburg while attempting to obtain classified information," the FSB said, referring to a city in central Russia more than 1,000 miles east of Moscow.
The Wall Street Journal said it was "deeply concerned for the safety" of its reporter, adding in a later statement that it "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."
Gershkovich had recently contributed to reporting for the Journal on the Wagner Group, a company whose founder has links with Vladimir Putin and whose private army of mercenaries has played a key role in the war in Ukraine. Wagner mercenaries have been at the forefront of Russia's ongoing assault on the Ukrainian-held, front-line town of Bakhmut, where Ukrainian forces have told CBS News the private fighters — many of whom were previously recruited from Russian prisons — were being thrown at the front line in waves with seemingly little regard for their lives.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Thursday in a post on the Telegram messaging app that what Gershkovich "was doing in Yekaterinburg has nothing to do with journalism. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the status of a 'foreign correspondent', a journalistic visa and accreditation are used by foreigners in our country to cover up activities that are not journalism."
Government spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the matter one for Russia's security services, but he said the Kremlin "understood" that Gershkovich had been "caught red-handed," without offering any further detail. Peskov warned the U.S. not to take any retaliatory measures against Russian journalists in the U.S., saying it "must not happen."
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced deep concern over "Russia's widely-reported detention of a U.S. citizen journalist" and said the State Department was "in contact" with the newspaper about the situation.
"Whenever a U.S. citizen is detained abroad, we immediately seek consular access, and seek to provide all appropriate support," Blinken said, adding that, "in the strongest possible terms, we condemn the Kremlin's continued attempts to intimidate, repress, and punish journalists and civil society voices."
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Gershkovich's arrest was "unacceptable" and condemned Russia's actions "in the strongest terms." She said the State Department had been "in direct touch with the Russian government on this matter," and urged Americans living in or visiting Russia to "depart immediately."
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Thursday that President Joe Biden had ben briefed on Gershkovich's detention. Kirby said senior WH officials spoke to Wall Street Journal and the State Department has been in touch with the newspaper and Gershkovich's family.
Kirby said they had no indication there would be any action American journalists, but it is too soon to tell if it is part of some larger movement. "We were just as surprised by this as all of you were," Kirby said.
Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said on social media in response to the detention that "the way the FSB interprets espionage today means that anyone who is simply interested in military affairs can be imprisoned for 20 years."
Before joining The Wall Street Journal, Gershkovich worked for AFP in Moscow. A fluent Russian speaker, he was previously a reporter based in the Russian capital for The Moscow Times, an English-language news website. His family immigrated to the United States from Russia when he was a child.
Several U.S. citizens are currently in detention in Russia and both Washington and Moscow have accused the other of carrying out politically-motivated arrests.
The FSB in January opened a criminal case against a U.S. citizen it said was suspected of espionage but did not name the individual.
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, was arrested in Russia in 2018 and handed a 16-year sentence on espionage charges. He is detained in a penal colony south of Moscow. The U.S. says he was a private citizen visiting Moscow on personal business and has demanded his release.
There have been several high-profile prisoner exchanges between Moscow and Washington over the past year. In December, Moscow freed U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, who had been arrested for bringing cannabis oil into the country, in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Russian authorities have also used espionage charges against Russian journalists.
Last year, Russia jailed a respected defence reporter, Ivan Safronov, for 22 years on treason charges.
Safronov worked for business newspapers Kommersant and was one of Russia's most prominent journalists covering defence.
Gershkovich's arrest comes as Western journalists in Russia face increasing restrictions. Staff of Western media outlets often report being tailed, particularly during trips outside of major urban hubs of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
Many Russians fear speaking to foreign media, due to strict censorship laws adopted in the wake of the Ukraine offensive.
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