Russia’s arrest of an American journalist on Thursday sparked outrage in the U.S., escalating fears that Moscow may attempt to take additional hostages as tensions reach new heights during the war in Ukraine.
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, part of the newspaper’s Moscow bureau, was detained by Russian authorities in the city of Yekaterinburg on charges of espionage, accused of collecting a state secret about the Russian military-industrial complex.
The White House has indicated that it’s too early to say if Gershkovich’s arrest will lead to more incidents — and noted Thursday the motive for the move was unknown — but journalism groups are already sounding the alarm.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) warned that Moscow’s overall goal could be to stamp out foreign journalists in Russia from publishing information critical of the Kremlin, after cracking down on Russian journalists over the past year. The group said that Russia is likely to draft fabricated information in Gershkovich’s case.
“Russia managed to eliminate free press in the last 12 months or so. And now it could be the next stage to deal with foreign media,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “It’s all about Russia’s attempt to control reporting.”
She also warned that Gershkovich’s case could become a long, diplomatic battle.
Because Russian trials deny the accused basic rights and are often conducted in secret, Said said Gershkovich’s chances of freedom hinge on negotiations between the U.S. and Russia, which is seeking to benefit from the arrest.
“What Russians usually do, it’s like playing chess [with] many moves ahead, and they try to benefit with every move,” Said explained. “When I woke up and I heard this news, my immediate question was, ‘Which high-profile or even not very high-profile Russian is in an American jail?’ Because I think that is going to be the way it’s going to be resolved eventually.”
Meanwhile, the White House said it is focused on getting access to Gershkovich before assessing the threat level in Russia for journalists.
“It’s too soon to know or to be able to indicate that this is some sort of larger movement afoot here,” national security spokesman John Kirby said on Thursday. “We’re focused on Evan. We’re focused on … getting consular access to him as soon as we can so that we can assess for ourselves the condition that he is in and we can keep his family informed.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre also said the administration doesn’t “have any specific indication that journalists would be targeted.”
The Russian Federal Security Service, the main successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, arrested Gershkovich for allegedly trying to gain access to classified information and claimed he was acting on orders from the U.S.
Jean-Pierre, during a press briefing with reporters, would not answer a question about whether Gershkovich had ever worked for the U.S. government while lambasting the charges against him as “ridiculous.” The Journal has rejected the allegations against him and called for his release.
“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. “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.”
Washington condemned the arrest of Gershkovich, who made an initial court appearance in Moscow and pleaded not guilty before he was ordered held until May 29. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was “deeply concerned” about the arrest.
“In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the Kremlin’s continued attempts to intimidate, repress, and punish journalists and civil society voices,” Blinken said in a statement.
President Biden was briefed on Thursday morning about Gershkovich’s detention, and representatives from the Journal spoke with officials from the White House and State Department on Wednesday evening.
Other press advocacy organizations have condemned the detention, including the National Press Club, which on Thursday called on the State Department to designate Gershkovich’s detention as an unjust detention.
For many Americans, the case is a reminder of the arrest and trial of WNBA star Brittney Griner last year.
Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony last summer but was released in a prisoner exchange in December. The U.S. traded convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner, who was detained for carrying cannabis vape cartridges.
Russia has also detained former U.S. Marine and American citizen Paul Whelan since 2018 on espionage charges.
When asked if there is a concern that Russia was encouraged to arrest more high-profile Americans after Griner was released, the White House said the detention of foreigners — and particularly Americans — was not new for the Kremlin.
“This is not a new tactic for Mr. Putin and for Russian officials,” Kirby said. “It’s not new for them to detain Americans, and it’s certainly not new for Mr. Putin to strike back against a free and independent press.”
Gershkovich’s detention is also reminiscent of the arrest of U.S. News & World Report journalist Nicholas Daniloff, who was accused of espionage in 1986. Former President Reagan’s administration argued that his arrest was in retaliation for the U.S. arresting of Gennadi Zakharov, a Soviet working at the United Nations.
The arrest of Gershkovich comes about four days after the U.S. charged a Russian national, Sergey Cherkasov, as an agent of the Russian Intelligence Service. Cherkasov, who is being held in Brazil, is also accused of bank and fraud charges.
Russia passed a law shortly after the invasion of Ukraine last year that prohibits the publication of information related to “discreditation” of the military. About 170 people have been arrested or charged in relation to the crackdown since February 2022, according to the International Press Institute.
Gershkovich has worked as a reporter in Russia since 2017 and joined the newspaper in January 2022, according to The Wall Street Journal.
He most recently wrote about the impact of Western sanctions on Russia, Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow and tensions in the Kremlin involving Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Maria Zakharova, director of the press department for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement on Telegram that Gershkovich’s arrest “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,” the statement read.
U.S. lawmakers on Thursday expressed their outrage over Gershkovich’s arrest, stressing concerns over Moscow using Americans as leverage.
“Once again, Russia’s desperate authoritarian regime has taken a U.S. citizen hostage – simply for being an American reporter. Russia must release Evan Gershkovich and other unjustifiably held Americans immediately,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Wednesday.
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), the co-chairman of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, said the arrest marks an “escalation not seen between our two countries since the days of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.”
“I am deeply concerned that this detention is the latest salvo in Putin’s efforts to use Americans as leverage in his conflict with Ukraine,” Quigley said in a statement. “He failed to successfully use [Brittney] Griner to degrade our support for Ukraine and he will fail again now.”