Evan Gershkovich: what does Russia want from jailing US citizens?

Russian police arrested Wall Street Journal reporter on espionage charges in first such case since Cold War

Evan Gershkovich
Gershkovich faces a potential 20-year sentence if found guilty of espionage charges
(Image credit: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images)

A Wall Street Journal reporter has become the latest US citizen to be detained in Russia but the first overseas journalist to be arrested there for alleged espionage since the Cold War.

The FSB, Russia’s security agency and the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, has accused Evan Gershkovich of collecting information on “the military-industrial complex, which constitutes a state secret”, said Radio Free Europe’s Russian service. Russia claims to have caught him “red-handed”, the broadcaster added.

Gershkovich, 31, was officially accredited as a journalist by the Russian foreign ministry. He emigrated from Russia to the US with his family when he was a child, and speaks the language fluently. He was working in Yekaterinburg at the time of his detention but it is not known where he is being held.

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In what PBS describes as “a rare phone call between the diplomats since the Ukraine war”, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged his Russian counterpart, foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, to release Gershkovich immediately – as well as Paul Whelan, another imprisoned American.

One US citizen per year

Since 2017, Russia has detained at least one US citizen per year, according to a report by the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation in September.

Whelan, a security executive and former Marine, was in Moscow in 2018 for a wedding when he was detained on espionage charges. In 2020, he was sentenced to 16 years in a prison labour camp after “a sham trial”, said The Hill. The 53-year-old was moved to a prison hospital last month “for undisclosed reasons”.

Last summer, Blinken and Lavrov discussed a proposal to release Whelan, along with Brittney Griner. Griner, an American professional basketball player and two-time Olympic gold medallist, was detained in February last year when Russian customs officials said they found cartridges containing hashish oil, often used in vape pens, in her luggage.

The 32-year-old was found guilty of attempted drug smuggling and sentenced to nine years in a notorious penal colony, where she was moved in November.

Brittany Griner

Griner had been sentenced to nine years in prison but was released last December
(Image credit: Aris Messinis / AFP via Getty Images)

In December, Griner was released in a prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the Merchant of Death who had been serving a 25-year prison sentence. But Whelan was not included in the deal, despite US diplomats’ efforts, said The New York Times.

Her case echoed that of Marc Fogel, a 61-year-old history teacher from Pittsburgh, who was detained in Moscow in 2021 for carrying medical marijuana, which according to The Hill he used to treat chronic back pain. He was sentenced to 14 years at a labour camp for drug trafficking. The US State Department has not yet designated Fogel as “wrongfully detained”.

Sarah Krivanek was also a teacher who had been working at a Russian private school since 2017. After an altercation with her partner in 2021, during which she allegedly wielded a knife in self-defence, she was arrested – despite her boyfriend retracting any charges. In February, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Krivanek, 46, was sentenced at a trial without a jury to a year in a Russian penal colony.

The Californian was released in December, on the same day as Brittney Griner.

Warning or bargaining chip

The Wall Street Journal has accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of detaining Gershkovich to “embarrass the US and intimidate the foreign press still working in Russia. The Kremlin has cowed domestic reporting in Russia, so foreign correspondents are the last independent sources of news.”

The arrest came days after his widely read dispatch documenting the decline of the Russian economy. “The Kremlin doesn’t want that truth told,” said the WSJ.

We do not know yet whether Gershkovich has been taken as an example, a warning or a bargaining chip, but he is likely to face “a lengthy show trial”, said The Washington Post.

Hostage taking is a key component of Putin’s leverage, and Gershkovich “is a hostage until proven otherwise”. In this case, Putin is sending “a very clear message to the international community, and the United States in particular: Journalism in Russia is dead, and foreign correspondents are not welcome.”

But the case is hardly likely to help relations between the former Cold War enemies, especially while the US maintains its support for Ukraine and continues to impose hefty sanctions on Russia. US President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House that Russia should “let him go”.

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