RIGA, Latvia — Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, arrested a Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen assigned to the newspaper’s Moscow bureau, and accused him of being a spy for the United States.
The FSB accused Gershkovich of gathering information about a Russian military enterprise but did not cite any evidence in its statement on Thursday announcing the arrest. The Wall Street Journal forcefully denied the allegations and demanded his release.
“The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation stopped the illegal activities of the correspondent of the Moscow bureau of the American newspaper The Wall Street Journal, Evan Gershkovich, born in 1991, who is suspected of spying for the American government,” the FSB said in its statement. “It was established that Gershkovich, acting at the request of the American side, collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of an enterprise of the Russian military-industrial complex. The foreign national was detained in Yekaterinburg while attempting to obtain classified information.”
Gershkovich was arrested on Wednesday in the city of Yekaterinburg in the Urals and was transferred to a Moscow court, where he denied the charges and was ordered to be held in the Lefortovo pretrial detention center until May 29, the Tass state-controlled news agency reported.
Tass reported that Gershkovich’s lawyer, Danill Berman, was barred from the hearing on Thursday. The agency quoted law enforcement officials as stating the case was marked “top secret.” The Tass report could not be independently verified.
Gershkovich, 31, has worked in Russia as a journalist since 2017. Before joining the Wall Street Journal a little more than a year ago, he worked for Agence France-Presse and the Moscow Times. Before that, he was a news assistant for the New York Times in New York.
In addition to strongly denying the accusations, the Wall Street Journal expressed deep concern for Gershkovich’s safety.
“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich,” the newspaper said in a statement Thursday. “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.”
Gershkovich faces up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted. Russia’s justice system is highly politicized, and acquittals are rare. Espionage trials are typically held in secret.
Gershkovich was detained Wednesday, according to local media. He was taken to Moscow for a court hearing, and the case was being handled by the FSB’s central office, the Kommersant newspaper reported.
A Yekaterinburg news outlet, Vecherniye Vedomosti, reported that an eyewitness saw plainclothes security agents remove a person from a Yekaterinburg restaurant on Wednesday and place him in a minivan, which drove away. A sweater had been pulled over the man’s face as he was led to the van, according to the report.
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Senior Russian government officials swiftly endorsed the allegations against Gershkovich, preempting judicial proceedings and suggesting without evidence that they had no doubts about the case, which appeared to be the first arrest of a foreign journalist for spying in Russia since the Cold War.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “As far as we know, he was caught red-handed. I don’t know the details.”
Pressed by reporters about whether the arrest could have negative consequences for Russian journalists working abroad, Peskov replied: “We hope that this will not happen, and it should not happen. Let me repeat, it’s not a question of suspicion. It’s that he was caught red-handed.”
He declined to be more specific, adding: “No, I can’t. That’s the prerogative of the secret service. They are the ones who deal with spies.”
Asked whether the Kremlin was aware of Gershkovich’s work, he responded: “Of course, we monitor the foreign media every day. We read his publications.” He offered no details about the Kremlin’s attitude toward the journalist. “Well, what kind of attitude could there be? We take into account what is published. I cannot say anything more.”
The spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, alleged without providing evidence that Gershkovich’s activities in Yekaterinburg had “nothing to do with journalism.”
“Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the status of a ‘foreign correspondent,’ a journalist’s visa and accreditation are used by foreigners in our country to cover up activities that are not journalism,” Zakharova wrote on her Telegram channel.
Relations between Washington and Moscow have grown increasingly toxic over Russia’s war against Ukraine. Last week, the Justice Department unveiled an indictment against Sergey Cherkasov, an alleged Russian spy who attended graduate school in the United States under a false Brazilian identity. Cherkasov was arrested in Brazil and is jailed there.
He came to D.C. as a Brazilian student. The U.S. says he was a Russian spy.
Russia has detained several U.S. citizens in cases that appeared to be trumped up for political leverage. Among them was WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was exchanged in December for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
As that exchange was being negotiated, the United States unsuccessfully sought to include Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen and former Marine, who was arrested in Russia, convicted of spying and sentenced to a 16-year prison term in 2020. He remains in prison there.
Lefortovo pretrial detention center is one of Russia’s most secure prisons, where those accused of serious crimes such as treason, terrorism and espionage are confined. Whelan spent months in the Lefortovo pretrial detention center with no phone calls and was denied permission to write to his family, Tass reported.
Yaroslav Shirshkov, a local advocate and critic of the war in Ukraine, who met Gershkovich in Yekaterinburg, said in a phone interview that the American journalist asked him questions about local people’s opinions on current events.
“He behaved as a professional journalist, a very highly professional journalist, and he observed all the rules, and he acted exclusively as a journalist,” Shirshkov said. He was alerted to Gershkovich’s disappearance when someone from the newspaper’s London office called him at 1 a.m. Thursday to say the office had not been able to contact Gershkovich by phone for nine hours.
Shirshkov said the arrest seemed to signal that Russian authorities were looking for someone to use in an exchange. “I think that they just needed to kind of replenish their so-called exchange fund,” he said. “They needed somebody that they could then exchange for somebody else. Or probably they just need somebody to be able to bargain with the West.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Thursday that it was premature to raise the question of an exchange involving Gershkovich. He said previous exchanges involved prisoners who had been convicted.
There is a precedent for the exchange of a journalist accused of espionage.
In 1986, Soviet authorities arrested U.S. News & World Report correspondent Nicholas Daniloff and accused him of spying. He was allowed to leave the country, without standing trial, after the United States agreed to allow Gennady Zakharov, a Soviet citizen accused of espionage in the United States, to leave the country without a trial. Zakharov was sent back to Moscow in exchange for a group of Soviet dissidents.
Since the start of the invasion of Ukraine last year, the Russian government has moved to suppress all dissent and has adopted strict laws prohibiting criticism of the Russian military.
Mark Galeotti, a Russian analyst at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, called Gershkovich’s arrest “shocking.” Posting on Twitter, Galeotti wrote: “These days the Kremlin doesn’t even feel the need to have the most basic pretext to use hostage-taking as a tool of statecraft. Although on reflection, it’s not so much the act of a state as a bandit gang.”
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Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based advocacy group, expressed alarm that Gershkovich appeared to have been targeted in retaliation for his work. “Journalists must not be targeted,” the organization tweeted.
In recent months, Gershkovich has written about Russia’s economy as well as attitudes to the war in Pskov, a city in western Russia, which is the home base of a paratrooper division that occupied Bucha, a Kyiv suburb where Russian soldiers were accused of atrocities.
The ChTD channel on Telegram, which is associated with the exiled Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, described Gershkovich as a “hostage.”
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